As a person who loves to be self-sufficient, I’m satisfied when I can provide meals from food I’ve hunted, caught, raised, or harvested. I provide many meals of fish and wild game for my family, and almost all those dishes are accompanied by vegetables I’ve grown in my garden.
Some of those vegetables are even the main ingredient of the main course, especially when tomatoes are in season.
Tomatoes are used in many dishes such as pasta, soups, chili, and more. One tomato plant, when properly cared for, will yield large quantities of fruit (tomatoes are technically fruits, not vegetables) that can either be eaten immediately or preserved for later use.
Whether it’s a ripe tomato slice on a bologna sandwich or homemade pizza sauce, tomatoes offer the imaginative gardener countless choices.
I’m going to help you learn some gardening tips that’ll yield more tomatoes than you ever thought possible. Then, I’ll give you some great ideas on how to use them.
Boost your gardening skills
It’s best to grow tomatoes in fertile, deeply worked, and well-drained soil in full sunlight. To make sure you have everything you need, add plenty of good compost or well-rotted manure into each planting hole.
Tomatoes like warm soil and don’t tolerate frost, so wait for warm spring days and soil temperatures above 60°F to plant. In warmer climates, mulch your tomatoes thickly after the soil has warmed thoroughly. If you need to raise your soil temperature, simply lay down black plastic a few days prior to planting. Just be sure to remove the plastic before planting.
If you’ve experienced problems with growing tomatoes in the past, choose disease-resistant varieties when possible. When buying seedlings, look for young, healthy plants with thick stems. Don’t buy tomato plants that appear tall and spindly, or that have leaves that look spotted, purplish or yellow.
Also, look for insect damage before purchasing. Begin setting out seedlings two weeks after the last expected spring frost, or do it earlier if you intend to cover them with row covers or cloches to help retain heat. You can continue to set plants out until 12 to 14 days before the first fall frost.
In short-season areas, if you choose to use seeds, sow indoors six to eight weeks before you set them out. In climates with a long season, you can direct-sow the seeds.
Spacing depends upon whether you plan to stake, cage, or allow the plants to sprawl. Just allow enough space between the plants for good, even sunlight broadcast and air circulation.
When tying the vines to any form of trellis, use soft cloth strips—not wire or string—to avoid damaging the plant. When planting seedlings, plant them on their sides, or very deep, and water well.
Tomatoes are very easy to grow in containers. Just make sure the container is in a warm, sunny location. You can stake, cage, trellis, or simply allow the plants to sprawl by planting in large hanging baskets.
Fertilization will ensure a good tomato crop all growing season. Make sure the soil already has lots of good compost, and organic matter worked in. Lightly broadcast some 10-10-10 fertilizer over the area, till in, and then sow seeds or plant transplants.
When the plants begin to flower, side-dress with 1 tablespoon per plant of 5-10-10, or one large handful of good compost, which generally equals the same. Sprinkle around the base of the plant, but not up against the stem, and water in.
Understand that too much nitrogen will result in more foliage growth but fewer fruits, so go easy. Another good option is food specially formulated for tomato health. This food either comes in a powder or stick form and can be found in many nurseries and farm stores.
Tomatoes will mature in 90 to 140 days from seed. It takes 60 to 90 days for seedlings to mature, depending upon the cultivar.
Many tomato varieties won’t produce fruit when temperatures are below 50°F or above 90°F. If you live in such a climate, try growing special cold- or heat-tolerant varieties.
You can also try growing smaller-fruited, indeterminate cultivars like cherry tomatoes because they flower continuously and therefore offer more chances of successfully producing fruit.
In cool climates, choose early varieties, which mature quickly and tolerate cooler conditions.
Tomatoes are ripe when they’re fully colored but firm. You should never store tomatoes in the refrigerator because cool temperatures cause them to lose flavor and texture.
Fight the Blight
Tomato blight denotes a family of diseases caused by fungus-like organisms that spread through potato and tomato foliage, particularly during wet weather. Blight can be managed.
When purchasing plants, it’s important to look for blight-resistant varieties and always purchase from reputable sources. Plant tomatoes in a different part of your garden each year, and you should avoid planting near potatoes, in which late blight may overwinter. You need to allow proper spacing between plants. Blight thrives in wet conditions. Give plants ample space to provide good airflow, and use stakes or cages to keep vines above ground.
Applying mulch around the bases of tomato plants cuts back on the spread of blight-causing spores. If blight does become a problem, surrounding mulch may harbor spores and should be disposed of offsite (do not compost infected plants or mulch).
Catching blight early can be effective in preventing spread between plants. If blight is detected on shoots or leaves, remove them from the plant and dispose of diseased foliage offsite. Blight spreads quickly. In certain cases, destroying entire plants may be necessary to protect adjacent crops.
Uses beyond fresh tomatoes
When you have more tomatoes than you know what to do with, it’s best to can them so you can enjoy your harvest all winter long. There are so many things you can do with tomatoes rather than just can them whole. Tomato salsa, juice, paste, sauce, pasta sauce, pizza sauce, and even Bloody Mary mix are just a few of the canning options.
Kits are available for purchase that simplify the making of salsa, pizza sauce, ketchup, and more. All of the spices are in one packet. All you must do is prepare the tomatoes—usually by boiling, then removing the skins—and then follow the easy steps on the package to achieve the finished product.
I use these packets when I’m short on time. They’re inexpensive, and the results are often just as good as if I followed a recipe. Recipes for common tomato-based staples aren’t difficult to follow, but they usually require more ingredients.
My salsa recipe
This is my preferred salsa. It yields 5 to 6 pints, and it’s a simple recipe that my family loves.
- 5 pounds tomatoes
- 3 green bell peppers, diced
- 8 stalks celery, chopped
- 3 onions, chopped
- 8 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 4-ounce cans diced green chilies
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons white sugar
- 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped.
Begin by placing a steamer rack in the bottom of a large, 16-quart stockpot or canning pot. Place new or clean mason jars on the rack. You can fill the jars with water and fill the pot with just enough water to come to the top of the jars. Heat water to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes to keep the jars warm while you prepare the salsa.
The tomatoes must be peeled, and blanching them is the easiest way to accomplish this. To blanch, score the ends of the tomatoes and place them in boiling water for a minute. Remove the tomatoes from water and let cool to the touch. Remove and discard the peels. Cut away any cores if you haven’t already done so. Chop the tomatoes and make sure to save any juices that seep out.
Starting with 5 pounds of tomatoes, you should end up with about 8 cups of chopped tomatoes and juices. You must use at least 7 cups of tomatoes for this recipe. Drain the water from the pot, and return the chopped tomatoes to the pot.
In 2 quarts of boiling, salted water, add chopped bell peppers, celery, onions, jalapeños, garlic, and green chilies, and cook until all ingredients are tender. Drain and add vegetables to tomatoes.
Add salt, oregano, black pepper, sugar, and cilantro. Simmer gently for 15 minutes.
While the salsa is cooking, place the jar lids in a bowl and cover them with boiling water to sterilize. 7 Ladle salsa into canning jars, leaving a ½ inch of headspace. Wipe the rims with a clean, damp paper towel to remove residual salsa from the rims.
8 Place canning lids on the jars, and screw on the lid rings. Don’t over-tighten, or you might not achieve a good seal. Remember that air does need to escape from the jars during the next step, the water bath.
Now, the filled and lidded jars can be placed back onto the rack in the large stockpot of hot water you used to sterilize the jars in step one. Probably, you may need to remove some of the water from the pot to prevent it from overflowing.
Cover the jars with at least 1 inch of water. Bring to a rolling boil and process for 15 minutes (20 minutes for altitudes 1,000-6,000 feet; 25 minutes above 6,000 feet). Then, turn off the heat and let the jars sit in hot water for 5 minutes.
Now, remove jars from the water bath and let them sit on a counter for several hours. Let the jars sit until completely cool. Pay attention as the lids should “pop” as the cooling salsa creates a vacuum under the lid, and the jars are sealed.
If a lid hasn’t been sealed, either replace the lid and reprocess in a water bath for another 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can store the salsa in the refrigerator and use within the next few days.
Canned salsa should be consumed within one year
Tomatoes are often taken for granted, and surprisingly, some people who like salsa, barbecue sauce, and marinara turn their noses up at them without considering their many uses. When you’re planning your garden, consider adding a few tomato plants and creating your own versions of family favorites.
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