Decoding Tomatoes: Tomato Stuff You May Have Wondered About But Were Afraid To Ask

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tomato Collage

…a  post with the new gardener in mind.

When I first started growing tomatoes, I thought a tomato was simply a red fruited vine that one planted in the summer. It wasn’t until I gained momentum and little bit more experience that I began to notice a variety of terms thrown out there associated with tomatoes. Terms everyone just assumes you know, when in fact I had no idea what they meant, and as a new gardener I felt way too shy to ask.

There is much more here that could be written. I started and stopped many times, edited, and struggled to stay within my self imposed 200-1000 word limit rule. I haven’t written much about cultural practices, tips and tricks, or anything like that. I’ve tried to keep it just to terms that would help you navigate through a seed catalog or (more appropriately for this time of year) a nursery.

So while part of this post may seem very basic, it is written with the newbie in mind. It is what I would have loved to have known those first few summers I tried my hand at tomatoes.

“Let’s Start at the Very Beginning….the very best place to start”

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Eggplant all belong in the Nightshade family

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Eggplant all belong in the Nightshade family

First off, the tomato is part of the nightshade family, or if you want to get all fancy about it: solonaceae family. Other members include the eggplant, pepper, and potato. This is important because a bit further down, we talk about crop rotation, and when you rotate your crops, you think of them in terms of a family group since they attract the same sort of diseases and pests. Basically this means that if you plant tomatoes one year, the next year you do not want to put eggplant in the same spot.

Next: tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate.

Determinate tomatoes ripen all at once making them ideal for canning. They frequently (but not always) grow as a bush and don’t require as much caging or staking.

Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to bear fruit until frost unless you live in an area like mine where heat brings on spider mites. In that case if you can make it through to August: good luck. Indeterminate tomatoes grow as a vine and will need to be staked or caged. They will also need to be pruned by pinching back suckers.

Suckers are little side shoots that appear in the crotch of the branches. If left to grow, they produce their own foliage, blossoms and fruit. If pinched back by pruning, the tomato plant will grow nice and tidy. Some gardeners prune, preferring to direct all the plant’s energy to the main stem, some leave the suckers feeling that the more fruit and foliage (and foliage providing the necessary photosynthesis) the better.

Then we have:

Heirloom: referring to those plants that have been handed down from generation to generation. These varieties include Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, etc.
and
Hybrid: referring to those plants that are are produced when two compatible plants with specific characteristics are cross bred to produce a plant that is supposedly stronger and more resistant to disease. These varieties include Better Boy, Early Girl, etc.

Heirloom plants are open pollinated and the seeds can be harvested and kept year after year.
Hybrid seeds or plants will need to be purchased year after year.

Some gardeners feel that heirloom tomatoes, while superior in variety and flavor, do not exhibit a high tolerance of the elements or resistance to disease and for this reason prefer to grow hybrids. I knew of one gardener for example, who grew a hybrid variety simply for canning because it produced well, but used heirlooms for slicing.

In our garden we have preferred to use heirlooms because they are completely self sustaining. I feel that while they may not be as hardy and resistant this first year, as we save seed from the strongest plants, over time we will end up with a strain that is tolerant of our harsh climate.

Some of our favorite heirloom varieties: Cherokee Purple, Cream Sausage, and Austin's Pear

Some of our favorite heirloom varieties: Cherokee Purple, Cream Sausage, and Austin’s Pear

There are some heirloom varieties that are disease resistant. Marglobe is one of them being resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt.

Which brings me to my next point.

If you choose to go the hybrid route, often times you will see an abbreviation following the variety. This “code” refers to a disease that particular variety has been bred to resist.
Note that resistance doesn’t necessarily mean you will never see it, it simply means that variety is more tolerant than others.

Following is a very brief thumbnail description of these abbreviations and what they stand for. Entire posts could be devoted to each of these tomato issues. I’ve only included a very small amount of general information to give you an idea. The source for this info was taken from here and here.

F1-Fusarium Wilt Race 1; F2 – Fusarium Wilt Races 1&2 – Fusariam is a wilt disease caused by pathogens that invade the plant tissue blocking the flow of water through the plant. Symptoms include yellowing leaves that start at the bottom of the plant and progress upward. The best way to control is to plant resistant varieties and to practice crop rotation.

V- Verticilium Wilt -A disease caused by a fungus found in the soil, the symptoms are yellow blotches on the lower leaves, followed by brown veins, and then brown spots; working it’s way up the plant. Apart from planting a resistant variety, crop rotation is the best way of control.

N – Root knot nematode – A nematode is a tiny pest that lives in the soil and feeds within the roots of your plant. Symptoms include stunted plants with yellowed leaves that wilt easy. The best way to control nematodes apart from planting resistant varieties is to keep your soil clean and be careful of introducing them to the soil through contaminated plants. Yes, marigolds do help prevent nematodes, but they can also attract spider mites so be careful if you choose to go that route.

ToMV – Tobacco Mosaic Virus – A virus spread from plant to plant by handling infected leaves and fruit. The leaves will have a mottled light and dark green and are often times curled and misshapen. For best prevention and control: do not handle tomatoes after using tobacco. Wash your hands thoroughly.

ASC – Alternaria Stem Canker - A fungus carried in the soil and diseased foliage, it is recognized by dark brown cankers on the stem, and dark spots on the fruit. Cultural practices would include resistant varieties, disposal of contaminated plants, and crop rotation.

St – Stemphylium or gray leaf spot – This is another fungal disease that affects the leaves of the plant starting with the oldest ones first. The symptoms are small dark spots that show up on both sides of the leaf. As they enlarge, the center becomes gray and falls out, giving the appearance of buckshot. The best control is through disease resistant varieties, crop rotation, and disposal of infected leaves.

 Any terms missing from the list that you would add? 

What are some of your favorite tomato varieties and why?

Find this post and others like it linked to: The Homestead Barn Hop, Homemade Mondays, The Scoop, Tuesdays with a Twist, The Backyard Farming Connection Hop, Frugal Days Sustainable Ways, Down Home Blog Hop, Wildcrafting Wednesday, Tutorials Tips and Tidbits, The HomeAcre Hop, Simple Lives Thursday, From the Farm Blog Hop

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