The Perfect Tomato Plan

Follow these directions and we guarantee you the biggest and best harvest you've ever had.

By Pam Ruch

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Harvest Time Check your plants daily, and pick tomatoes by gently twisting the fruits from the vine when they're at the peak of their color and slightly soft to the touch. The best-tasting tomatoes have a balanced ratio of sugar to acid, and the sugars increase as the fruit colors, according to Purdue University. Tomatoes that ripen during longer days have more sugar than those that mature in the shorter days of late summer. For best flavor, store them at temperatures above 50°F.

Hall of Fame Tomatoes When gardeners, foodies, and other tomato lovers gather at taste-offs and festivals to rate the flavor of tomatoes, a few varieties repeatedly show up on winners' lists. To these we've added some of our own favorites.

Hefty Heirlooms 'Brandywine OTV' Big, red, and juicy. An uncontested favorite. 'Caspian Pink' Beefsteak-type tomato with pinkish red fruit. 'Constoluto Genovese' Red ribbed fruit with a classic taste. 'Hillbilly' Yellow and red streaked fruit, beautiful sliced. 'Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter' Each pinkish red fruit can be 2 pounds or more.

Round, Red, and Reliable 'Arkansas Traveler' Good hot-weather producer. 'Carmello' FVNT hybrid with early small to midsize fruit. 'Celebrity' VFFTNA hybrid compact plant with midsize fruit. 'Early Girl' VFF indeterminate, early and dependable. 'Stupice' A winner in the Northwest, where fruit set is a problem.

Non-Red 'Cherokee Purple' Large pink-purple fruit with complex flavor. 'Garden Peach' Small yellow fruit with slightly fuzzy skin. 'Jaune Flamee' Small deep orange fruit. 'Lemon Boy' VFN hybrid with mild yellow fruit. 'Paul Robeson' Midsize dusky dark red fruit; big flavor.

Plum Tomatoes 'Amish Paste' Medium-large red, solid fruits 'Margherita' VF hybrid, compact plant with small fruits that are excellent roasted. 'Speckled Roman' Meaty, striped yellow and orange fruit.

Cherries and Grapes 'Sungold' FT hybrid with yellow fruit. Most wanted cherry tomato. 'Isis Candy' Marbled red-orange fruit. 'Matt's Wild Cherry' Early red cherry/grape prized for flavor. 'Super Sweet 100' VF hybrid with sweet red fruit. 'Cupid' Fast hybrid red grape. Favorite of the OG test garden.

SEED SOURCES Gary Ibsen's TomatoFest, Carmel, CA; 831-625-6041, store.tomatofest.com Johnny's Selected Seeds, Winslow, ME; 877-564-6697, johnnyseeds.com Tomato Growers Supply, Fort Meyers, FL; 888-478-7333, tomatogrowers.com

Common Problems Solved

  • Early blight. Caused by a fungus that survives the winter on old vines. Remove and destroy diseased foliage. Avoid crowding and prune for good air circulation. Rotate crops.
  • Late blight. Caused by a fungus that is favored by wet weather. Spores travel great distances and infect large areas. Avoid crowding. If the infection is severe and widespread, remove and destroy all affected plants.
  • Wilts. Fusarium and Verticillium fungi cause parts of the plant to wilt, and can kill it over time. Look for resistant varieties. Rotate crops. Southern bacterial wilt results in sudden plant death. Remove and destroy all debris, and do not plant tomatoes where the disease has occurred in the past.
  • Root-knot nematodes. Caused by microscopic eelworms that live in soil. Look for resistant varieties. Rotate tomatoes with marigolds, tilling the marigolds into the soil at the end of the season.
  • Blossom-end rot. Caused by poor calcium uptake due to inconsistent moisture. Provide consistent moisture with a soaker hose, and keep a layer of mulch on the soil.
  • Cracking. Caused by sudden summer rains after dry periods. Provide consistent moisture. Look for varieties that are resistant to cracking.
  • Catfacing. Caused by incomplete pollination in cold weather. Don't plant too early. Select varieties that resist catfacing.
  • Tomato hornworm: Handpick and squash the caterpillars, but spare those that carry the white cocoons of braconid wasps on their backs. The wasps are their natural predators; to attract them, plant dill, and let your cilantro flower.

Master's Tip: Seed crimson clover under tomato plants when they are about 2 feet tall. The clover serves as a weed-smothering "living mulch" while fixing nitrogen into its root nodules.

Newbie Hint: Transplant nursery-bought seedlings into larger pots. Let them size up, and then plant outdoors a week or two after the last-frost date, when the soil is warm.

Health News Eating fresh tomatoes is a tasty way to take in vitamins A and C, but what's gripping the attention of horticultural and health scientists these days is another constituent of the fruit: lycopene, the compound responsible for the red color. Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Illinois, and elsewhere have linked the lycopene in tomatoes to a decreased risk of cancer. Breeders have been racing to produce a tomato that has high amounts of this cancer-fighting antioxidant and also retains the classic tomato taste. Coming soon to your area is high-lycopene Fla. 8153, also known by the name 'Flora-Lee', a hybrid developed by Jay Scott, Ph.D., of the University of Florida. It contains 25 percent more lycopene than standard cultivars, it's resistant to tomato diseases, and most important, it tastes like a tomato should.

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