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How To Grow Tomatoes

Beth Preheim of Yankton has gardened for twenty-five years, and the past four seasons at the Yankton Community Gardens. She’s a thrifty, low technology gardener who enjoys the social and practical sides of swapping seeds, plants, and good ideas. She designs her garden for fresh produce throughout the season with a little extra produce for others. She doesn’t want the waste of over growing too much of any kind of vegetable. She succession plants every few weeks during the season to add fresh vegetables to her table all summer long.

“I order seed from Pinetree Garden Seeds because they have seeds in small amounts for small gardens,” Preheim said. “If I split packets with others I order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.” Johnny’s website has lots of planting information.

“I store remaining seed from year to year, some as long as ten years,” she said.

Preheim checks viability of stored seed.  She covers ten seeds with damp paper towel and keeps it damp for about two weeks to see the rate of germination. “[By checking viability,] I know I have plants coming.”

As far as kind of tomato seed to start or tomato transplants to buy, Preheim first predicts conditions for the coming season, such as a dry summer. Some varieties are bred for specific conditions. Then she relies on diversity of the varieties she chooses to provide tomatoes early and late and get a predictable harvest that fits what she wants from her garden. Some gardeners prefer most of the crop at once because they plan to can, freeze or dry tomatoes. Some want a late crop because of summer trips. Some want fresh tomatoes throughout the season like Preheim. She reads maturity information on seed packets to time about when fruits are ripe.

“We had a tomato wilt that went through the community gardens a couple of years back, and you needed to replace plants,” she said. So she plants a few extra plants for such emergencies and keeps the wilt in mind when looking at disease resistant seed choices for the coming year. Those who buy plants may choose disease resistant varieties.

Wary of disease, she also trims off the bottom branches of the tomato plants as they grow for improved air circulation and prevents leaves from touching the ground.

Preheim keeps records of what she plants, how many plants, production, special standout features, and conditions of the season. She reviews her records as she selects a diversity of tomatoes to plant and commonly plants only one each. Often she tries new varieties. She swaps seeds with her sister and friends, adding new varieties. Some she planted last season include:

• ‘Jet Star’, indeterminate top producer in Iowa university trials, slicer, did not perform well in drought but generally a good bet.

• ‘Cluster Grande’, indeterminate, often found in grocery stores clumped on one stem.

• ‘Tip Top’, determinate, designed for container gardens

• ‘Stupice’, indeterminate, started producing in early July

• ‘Polbig’, determinate, early producer, produced well in drought

• ‘Belstar’, determinate, produced well in drought

• ‘Sub-Artic,’ determinate, variety that does well in a cool spring

Note: She said that determinate tomato plants tend to grow bushier and yield fruit earlier than vine-like indeterminate plants.

Preheim planted her tomatoes in plots at Yankton Community Gardens where space is limited. She read from Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew for how far apart to space her tomatoes and has since modified her methods for conditions here.

“You might begin by spacing tomatoes three feet apart, “ she said. She zigzags tomato plants down two rows about two feet apart. This way there is air circulation and space to harvest. Sturdy cages or trellises conserve space. “Last year I tried leaving plants on the ground. Ground squirrels ate the fruit,” she said.

Before planting tomato plants Preheim pulls off lower leaves. Rather than planting the plant perpendicular in the soil, she lays the plant in a trough dug out of soil with the plant almost horizontal to the soil. When the trough is filled, the plant’s leaves are not buried. “Later as the plant grows, I strip off lower leaves and add more soil to the stem,” she said. “In the end, [each plant] is planted three times. I train them up into a tomato cage. Stems are bendable.” Since tomato plants grow roots from their stems, this procedure adds more root area per plant for transport of water and micronutrients. She waters tomatoes a little less than other garden vegetables. About July she will begin to harvest fruits.

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