The Lazy Person’s Guide to Tomatoes

May 07, 2013, 16:29 pm  Posted by Lark

In most of the US, Mother’s Day weekend is tomato-planting time. There is a lot of advice out there for growers, and it can get pretty involved. But I am here to tell you exactly how much negligence you can get away with (a lot more than you think)!


"Cuor di Bue Tomato," © 2005 Dominik Hundhammer, CC Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/


1.) Okay, this first step isn’t so much about laziness as effectiveness. You’d think it were a carefully guarded secret, as few people know it, but it is really key to growing tomatoes. Start tomato (and pepper) seeds in flats with heating pads. A lot of people report that they have trouble getting tomato seeds to sprout, especially earlier in the season. The reason for this is that the soil needs to be about 75 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure a good germination rate. (Germination rate is the percentage of seeds planted that actually sprout.) Little kits are available at gardening stores with a pad that heats to just the right temperature and a plastic enclosure to hold the heat in. These kits cost maybe $30-40, but I’ve gotten years of tomato plants from mine; and with good seeds, the germination rate is very, very close to 100%. Furthermore, you’ll have transplantable seedlings within two weeks or so. Totally worthwhile investment!

"Tomato Seedlings," © 2008 Stephanie Vacher, CC Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en


2.) Start hardening off your seedlings right away, and all at once. (Hardening off is when you start exposing your baby plants to the elements: sun, rain, wind.) I have read a lot of articles and books that recommend exposing very young seedlings to sunlight only at first (in a window or under artificial light), and then waiting a week or two (or longer) to begin placing them outside in the elements, starting with an hour or two of exposure and gradually working up to all day. I’m lazy, and I disagree! If you use a nutrient-rich potting soil (which you should, because that increases germination rates too), then your tiny plants will grow so fast that by the time you get them outside, they’ll be tall and unstable. (Forcing them to reach for a window will also encourage that kind of growth.) It is important for tomato and pepper seedlings to get sunlight as soon as they emerge from the soil, so I just go ahead and start putting them outside all day long as soon as they peek out of the soil. The elements will kill a few, but those were probably weaklings anyway, and now you don’t have to do all that babysitting. As long as it is above 55 degrees (F), those plants can be outside, no matter the conditions (unless it’s the storm of the century or something).


3.) Prune your tomato plants. Or don’t. I have tried both, and I do find that I get bigger (but fewer) fruit from pruned plants. If you live in an area where tomatoes are prone to fungal disease, such as blight or anthracnose, pruning may keep your plants healthy for longer (like a week or two, maybe). Our plants get anthracnose every single year, and my solution is to just plant lots and lots of plants, harvest a ton while they’re healthy, and preserve them by canning or freezing. That said, I think the plants have hung in there a little longer in the years when I’ve pruned them. I’m not sure it’s wise, though, because I’m so much more heartbroken to lose plants that I’ve worked hard to save, and it doesn’t seem to buy enough time to make it worthwhile. I guess the lesson here is: If you’re a pruner, prune. If you’re lazy or prone to emotional attachment like I am, don’t bother.

The most common fungal disease, late blight, should not be confused with blossom-end rot, which is often a calcium deficiency or moisture inconsistency (either way, it's curable, unlike blight). ©2011 Downtowngal, CC Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/


4.) Tomato cages are worth the time and money. You’ll spend a lot less effort with cages than you will with those dumb ol’ sticks. (You have to keep re-tying the plants to the sticks as they grow.) Instead, just place a cage over a small plant, and forget about it. If you don’t support the plants somehow, you’ll lose a lot of them to wind and gravity casualties, plus increase the odds of those pesky funguses taking hold!

The cone-shaped cages toward the far ends of the bed are better than the homemade, cylindrical ones you see closer to the camera, because they have stakes that stick right into the ground. The cylinders, on the other hand, have to be secured to something so they don't fall over. (Thanks to my dad back home in Parma for the classiest pink flamingos this side of the Mason-Dixon.)


5.) It doesn’t matter how much water your tomato plants get, as long as it’s consistent. (Or not. Whatever.) Watering them every day that it doesn’t rain is the safest bet. That way, when it rains for the entire second half of July, your tomatoes won’t crack from growing so fast. If you decide to do this, can I recommend some soaker hoses or something? Then, all you have to do is walk outside and turn on the spigot. Plus, your plants will be less likely to get those fungal diseases I keep talking about if the leaves aren’t getting wet. (Soaker hoses sit in the garden bed and water at the base of the plants.) Anyway, remember how I said I’m lazy? Well, if you don’t water consistently, the worst thing that can happen is you end up with cracked tomatoes that will eventually rot on the vine if you don’t harvest immediately. Or, sometimes the cracks will scab up. Hey, cracked and rotting tomatoes in the garden this year = volunteer tomato plants next year (assuming you don’t bother tilling, like me)! And those scabs? You can just cut them off and enjoy the rest of the tomato!


And to answer the question you may or may not be asking yourself now, “What is a lazy gardener to do with all the extra tomatoes?”


6.) Throw some back into the garden (or just let them fall off the plant like I mentioned a second ago), and you’re sure to get at least a few volunteers next year! This is an excuse not to till. I know you were looking for one.


7.) Make sauce, but don’t bother blanching and peeling the tomatoes. Here’s how I do it: Chop and core them, and then simmer them in water (covered) for a day or two on the stovetop, checking the level of the water every eight or ten hours just to make sure it doesn’t get too thick and burn. Turn off the heat and let it cool, AND PUT AN APRON ON. Stick an immersion blender in there and blend it all up. If you’re worried about skins and seeds, just pour the sauce through a strainer after blending. If the sauce isn’t thick enough, simmer it uncovered until it is. Add herbs and stuff at the end. Or whenever you want. Or not at all. Maybe you want this sauce to be a blank slate so you can pull it out of the freezer months from now and decide then whether it will be gazpacho, pasta sauce, chili, or a bath for your dog who just got too close to a skunk.


8.) Don’t bother canning if you’ve got some freezer space. Canning is hard. Just pour your sauce into freezer-proof jars, leaving more head room than you think you should, put the lid on, and freeze. I usually put mine in the fridge for a few days first so the flavors mingle.


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