Monday, July 18, 2011

New to gardening? Plant a cherry tomato!

Tomatoes the size of large marbles grow in clusters on heat-loving cherry tomato plants
Simply Living
July 18, 2011

If you have never gardened before but want to begin, plant a cherry tomato. Fast-growing, prolific and practically foolproof, these marble-sized red, orange or yellow fruit (yes, tomatoes are actually fruit, not vegetables) make a wonderful first-time gardening project.

One plant is all you need. A single cherry tomato planted in rich, loamy soil will produce more fruit than most people can eat. I know because I have four, and that's three plants more than needed to fulfill the culinary needs of my family.

Unlike many other vegetables, cherry tomatoes like hot weather. Plant a seedling now and by the end of August, you'll have surplus tomatoes to share with friends. We grow our plants in 15-gallon nursery pots, but they also do well when planted directly in the ground.

Successful gardening of cherry tomatoes depends on three basic variables: location, soil and water.

Location: Choose a sunny spot. These members of the nightshade family require six or more hours of sunshine to do what they do best — produce prodigious amounts of bite-sized fruit. Because of their propensity to sprawl, give them plenty of room to expand. Seedlings might be little when purchased, but young plants grow quickly. That's especially true when planted in the right kind of soil.

Soil: We like a homemade blend of compost, manure and peat augmented with wood chips for aeration, but if you're a new gardener, you might want to buy a ready-made mixture formulated for vegetables. Miracle-Gro, Jungle Growth and Scott's are among the many companies offering such products. Some even include built-in time-release fertilizers.

Water: A regular irrigation schedule, supplemented by hand watering when needed, is necessary for good growth and production. Determining how often to water is a matter of experimentation. Tomatoes that are not getting enough moisture will have wilted leaves, while overwatering causes the fruit to split. We mulch our tomatoes heavily with grass clippings to preserve moisture and water daily. In areas where water requirements limit irrigation to twice a week, it helps to supplement by hand. Besides, spending time in the garden watering plants is a good way to become familiar with each plant's needs.

Like most garden plants, cherry tomatoes are vulnerable to certain insects and disease problems. Fungus and viruses can affect plant production. Caterpillars can munch leaves, while slugs, snails and stinkbugs can damage the fruit. Fortunately, potential problems are easy to nip in the bud when you are frequently outside watering your plants or harvesting fruit. We opt for hand-picking pests instead of blasting them with pesticides, but both methods are effective.

The biggest mistake I make growing cherry tomatoes is providing inadequate staking. A healthy plant can grow 6 or more feet tall and almost as broad. This year I thought I was being clever to surround each seedling with a bamboo teepee. For the first few weeks, I diligently secured the growing stems to the upright canes with garden twine, but before long they grew so fast, I couldn't keep up. When I enter the garden now, the teepees tilt precariously, and the plants take up so much space I can barely squeeze by.

In an ideal world, my staking and tying would have continued throughout the plants' long productive period, and no stems would be touching the ground, but this is hardly an ideal world. My lack of attentiveness resulted in limbs lying directly on the ground, where crawling bugs have easy access. I won't be harvesting those tomatoes. Fortunately, I won't need to.

The cherry tomato plants in my garden are producing more fruit than I can eat, so it doesn't matter if a few go to waste or wind up as the main course of an insect's supper. However, over time, many of those unpicked or dropped fruit will sprout into more cherry tomato plants. That's where all my present plants came from. They began life as last year's dropped fruit.

If you're a newbie gardener looking for an entree to the world of gardening, cherry tomatoes is the way to go. But be forewarned: Successful gardeners must be ruthless. One cherry tomato plant today will turn into multiple plants next season. When they do, thin out those volunteers mercilessly, saving only one or two of the healthiest-looking specimens as keepers. Do that, and your reward will be a controllable harvest of homegrown goodness.

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