Caring for your plants
You have only to slice into a ripe tomato to understand its dependence on abundant soil moisture. Tomatoes are water storehouses, relying on moisture to manufacture their unique balance of acid and sugar. (Inadequate moisture stunts vine growth and makes the fruit dry and flavourless.) Tomatoes grow best in sandy loam with a pH between 6 and 6.8. Their most important requirement is the liberal addition of organic material (such as peat moss and shredded leaves), with coarse sand mixed in for efficient drainage. Mulch is necessary to prevent water evaporation. Shredded bark is a good choice for tomatoes (applied five to eight centi-metres deep over the roots), but production increases dramatically in short, northern growing seasons with plastic film over the soil. If you can tolerate the intrusion of agricultural plastic in your garden, black or dark green film boosts fruit production by up to 40 per cent. Red plastic (sold as SRM-Red) induces early fruiting by reflecting infrared rays into the plants.
Tomatoes need at least six hours of sun daily; while we think of them as heat-loving plants, they're more comfortable in moderate temperatures. They grow and blossom best at daytime temperatures between 21 and 24°C and nights between 10 and 13°C. The ideal “tomato summer” is found on the Russian Riviera of the Crimean peninsula (ancestral home of ‘Black Krim' and other excellent cultivars), where the high of 24°C occurs in July. Actually, I would be very comfortable there myself. Perhaps there's a little tomato patch on the Black Sea in my future.
- Soak seeds overnight to remove any germination inhibitors. The gel surrounding tomato seeds contains potent chemicals that prevent seeds from sprouting inside the fruit.
- Start seeds indoors five to six weeks before setting them out in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Small plants adapt better to windy spring conditions outdoors, growing roots while the air is cool and producing strong growth when it warms up.
- Remove the first set of branches from each plant; bury the plants on a horizontal slant if they're tall, all the way up to the top flush of leaves. The buried stem will grow additional roots to strengthen the plant all season.
- If cutworms sever young plants at soil level, salvage the cut stems and put them in a jar of water. They'll sprout roots and be ready for transplanting in two weeks.
- For stronger root and leaf development, redirect energy into early growth by removing the first sets of flowers until plants are 30 centimetres tall.