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You Say Tomato

Spring Grove Master Gardener Rich Tobiasz outlines the keys to growing the best tomatoes this season.

One of the most vivid memories of grandma’s garden is the unrivaled flavor of a fresh garden tomato. Whether it is used in a salad, salsa, sauce, a BLT — or just snacking on a cherry tomato right from the vine — a tomato’s taste is unmatched.

And there is still time to plant them in the garden this year. Tomato plants fit into most gardens or can be grown on porches and patios in containers. Here are some tips to cultivating the best tomatoes:

Sun — Tomatoes love full sun, with eight to 10 hours minimally required. The soil should be loose, fertile and well drained. Add compost generously and mulch. Fertilizer (10-10-10) may be applied at three to six weeks.

Seeds — Seeds should be started six weeks before the average last frost date (mid-May in McHenry County), though many gardeners simply transplant healthy purchased plants around Memorial Day. “Big” and spindly plants do not transplant well so avoid them. Transplant on a cloudy day, water well and cover them for a couple of days so that they do not dry out in the sun or wind.

Growing conditions — Tomatoes should be staked or grown in sturdy cages to keep them off the ground. Pinch back the sprouts that form at the junction of a branch and the main stem. During dry spells, keep the plant evenly watered to help minimize blossom end rot.

Care — Determinate plants produce their crop all at once; a plus for canning a large batch of sauce. Indeterminate plants produce throughout the season and well into the fall. Their season may be extended by covering the plants when there is the threat of frost.

Usage — Tomatoes are often grown for fresh summer eating, but they can be canned or frozen for winter use. Firm, red, ripe tomatoes may be canned in a water bath or pressure canner following the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener guidelines. To assure proper acidity and safety, the addition of lemon juice, citric acid or vinegar is recommended. Tomatoes may also be frozen (skins removed). It’s easier and quicker than canning and the fruits may be thawed or added directly to soups or made into sauce.

A Cherished Variety — While hybrids offer uniform sizes, heirlooms remain a favorite with many a tomato lover. With names like Brandywine, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Arkansas Traveler, Rutgers, Prudden’s Purple, Hungarian Heart, Polish Linguisa and Italian Heirloom, who can resist some of the finest and most flavorful tomatoes, brought to America by our ancestors?

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