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Don Kinzler, Published May 10 2013

Growing Together: Annual race for tomatoes from garden is on

Who among us will have the first ripe tomato? NASCAR competition pales in comparison to neighbor pitted against neighbor for the coveted Tomato Cup.

Who really cares about an early clump of radishes anyway? The tomato race is where it’s at. Certain key practices will speed tomato production.

First, let’s talk varieties. Tomatoes are divided into two classes. Determinate varieties grow to a certain plant size, then put their energy into ripening fruit during a concentrated period. Indeterminate varieties continue to produce vines all season. Cages or supports may be necessary unless you have plenty of space. Fruit ripening is less consolidated.

To be a race contender, choose an early-maturing variety. The number of days from transplant to fruit is on most labels. Early varieties are about 58 to 65 days. Mid-season tomatoes are 66 to 75 days. Late varieties will be 80 to 90 days.

For a list of specific varieties, I visited with Neal Holland, owner of Sheyenne Gardens in Harwood, N.D. Prior to his 25 years in business, Holland spent 32 years with North Dakota State University’s Horticulture Department developing adapted fruits and vegetables. He developed the Sheyenne tomato, which has remained one of the most asked-for varieties since it was released in 1966. Also included were Neal’s early Lark and my personal favorite, the large, meaty Cannonball.

Along with the NDSU varieties, Neal lists his favorites with number of days to fruiting: Lark (60-65), Park’s Whopper (65), and Better Bush (68) are early types. On Neal’s list of mid-season varieties are Beefy Boy (70), Dakota Gold (70), Mountain Spring (70), Sheyenne (70) Super Fantastic (70), Celebrity (72), and Cannonball (75). Many others, including cherry, paste and heirloom types, are also available.

Although not on Neal’s list, Early Girl (58) is widely available. Big Beef (73), an All-America Selections winner, has performed well in our garden.

The normal “safe” date for transplanting tomatoes outdoors is May 15-25. For the risk-takers, next year plant one or two tomatoes in late April. Protect them with clear, plastic bottomless jugs or hotcaps. Try devices such as the “Wall-O-Water,” which is a circular water-filled plastic tent reported to protect down to 16 degrees. I experimented with them and feel they have merit.

Tomatoes are a warm-season crop. Everything that can be done to encourage warmth of both air and soil will hasten growth. Locate a plant or two in the warm microclimate of your home’s sunny south side.

Holland echoed my thoughts about using clear plastic mulch to heat the soil. Lay clear, plastic sheeting on the ground over your planting area at least two feet by two feet in size. This can be done several weeks before planting, after first tilling the soil.

Lay the edges of the plastic in a shallow perimeter trench and cover with soil to secure. At planting time cut an x-shaped slit in the plastic through which to transplant. Seal the plastic around the plant with soil.

Black and red plastic don’t warm the soil as effectively as clear. The outer surface of black plastic may feel warm to the touch, but when you slide your hand underneath, the soil is cool. Clear plastic allows sunlight to create a greenhouse effect, which warms the soil beneath.

When buying tomato plants, choose vigorous, fresh-looking specimens with a rich, green color. Avoid nutrition-starved plants that look haggard and yellowed. Remember to “harden-off” plants by placing them outdoors for five to 10 days in a sheltered, sunny spot and expose gradually to wind.

Tomatoes should be planted deeply. Roots will form along the buried stem, and the plants will be less exposed to wind. Tall plants can be buried horizontally in a trench with the top gently curving out of the ground.

After all this effort, anyone would be disappointed to find a young plant severed at soil level by a cutworm. Protect the stem with a loose collar of plastic or metal extending a few inches above and below soil surface. Tuna cans work well.

Apply a water-soluble fertilizer solution after planting. Fertilize in moderation. Fruit and plant size will increase, but fruiting is sometimes delayed. Use a vegetable fertilizer with a “well-balanced” label ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Tomato Miracle Gro has an 18-18-21 ratio. Never use high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer.

One last trade secret: Early blossoms will often drop without setting fruit when night temperatures drop below 50 or 55 degrees. A naturally occurring plant hormone is sold called “Blossom Set,” which aids fruit set. I have used this successfully early in the season.

The race is on! Please let me know of your earliest success. Normally we’re “Growing Together,” but this time it’s every man for himself.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Don Kinzler writes a weekly yard and gardening column in SheSays. Readers can reach him at donkinzler@msn.com.