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Keeping the diva of the garden happy

Lycopersicon esculentum. That is the Latin genus and species for the beloved diva of the garden, the tomato. To be more specific, the Latin is the binomial nomenclature, or a two-part name, that identifies the generic name (genus) and specific epithet (species). And while that may not – and probably shouldn’t – mean anything to you, it reduces all confusion about a plant, or an animal, because those two words are only attributed to one thing no matter where you are in the world.

Sorry. Back to ’maters. If you have a garden, you probably have a tomato in there somewhere. Or if you were at our house, you would see 20 of them. If you were at a farm, you might see hundreds or thousands. They tend to demand a bit more of your time throughout the season, can be finicky about temperature, soil conditions, diseases and insects. They are one of the few vegetables that may need to be pruned, suckered or topped. As I type this, I wonder why I don’t grow more kale, which has much fewer steps (seed it, water it, occasionally harvest it, and wait until November when it may or may not die), and may provide higher nutritive value.

But it has nothing on tomatoes in terms of taste, and that is what sets tomatoes apart from almost everything else: The flavor of a truly vine-ripened tomato is arguably, incomparable.

Now that we are at the first of June, you probably already have, or are getting ready to, put your tomato seedling in the ground. While I recognize planting tomatoes so late risks the reward of ripe fruit in late summer, you may have to wait until the fear of the last frost diminishes, depending on where you live. I risked an early planting – May 20 and 27 – knowing that a June frost is by no means unheard of, but I do have backups, just in case Mother Nature plays another mean trick on us like she did in 2019 (freeze on June 23).

If you haven’t transplanted yet, don’t think that you have to go buy the biggest plant possible with fruit already on it. That would be the worst thing you could do. I like transplants that are no bigger than 10 inches high with no flowers or fruit on them, and make sure that they are dark green in color and can support themselves in the container.

For planting, follow these steps:

  • Dig a hole big enough that you can sink at least half of the plant under the soil. Pinch off all leaves that would be otherwise be underground, as this will provide additional rooting potential for a plant that is growing rapidly.
  • Pinch off any flowers and fruit, and don’t be afraid to “sucker” your indeterminate (those that continue to put new leaves and flowers at same time – opposite of determinate) plants. Suckers appear at the junction of the stem and side-branch of the plant, and often out-compete the branch for desirable nutrients and water. They tend to not produce as much fruit and also reduce airflow later in the season, increasing the susceptibility to diseases.
  • Cage, trellis or stake the plant.
  • Water thoroughly, and feel free to apply a fertilizer (either organic or inorganic) every two or three weeks.
  • Say your tomato prayer or present an offering to whichever tomato god you believe in, and hope that Mother Nature is kind!
  • Share your tomatoes with your local Extension Office.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.