How to Grow Epic Tomatoes

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Last weekend, I fairly devoured Craig LeHoullier's book Epic Tomatoes. Few gardeners have the experience LeHoullier has, given that he's trialed more than 1,200 varieties of tomatoes and introduced 100 new or "lost" tomatoes to the world. This guy knows his stuff.

Epic Tomatoes is really a must read for anyone who grows (or wants to grow) tomatoes. It's an interesting read, too, because the author spends some time discussing the stories behind many heirloom tomatoes - and because he has a knack for writing in a non-technical, but still precise, manner. He talks about the benefits of growing hybrid and heirloom varieties (and has found that hybrids don't outperform or resist disease better than heirlooms per really just depends upon the variety), gives us an interesting history of the tomato and tomato seeds, discusses seed saving, explains various tomato diseases, tells us his favorite varieties to grow, and even gives a short course on how to create new types of tomatoes ourselves. And did I mention all the gorgeous, mouth- watering photos?

But the section of the book that most interested me was LeHoullier's guide to growing tomatoes. And, as it turns out, you can forget any complicated procedures you may have read about elsewhere.

I've never been one to pamper my tomatoes too much, but I admit some of the author's guidelines surprised even me. So while I encourage you to read Epic Tomatoes yourself, here are some of the truths and myths I learned from a man who has grown many, many thousands of tomato plants:

1. Tomato seeds can last for 10 years or more, even with some temperature fluctuations during storage.

2. Tomato seeds can be planted densely - 50 seeds in a square inch. Seedlings can then be divided into individual pots without fear of damaging the roots or slowing down the growth of the plant.

3. Tomatoes don't need pruning. I think this one surprised me most! According to LeHoullier, pruning and removing suckers does not encourage bigger or more plentiful fruit. In fact, he says it decreases crop size. The only reason LeHoullier prunes tomatoes is to control plants that are getting too big and unwieldy for the planting space.

4. Removing foliage from tomato plants does not increase yield, quality, or flavor of fruit. In fact, says LeHoullier, removing a tomato plant's leaves invites sunscald and reduces the flavor of the fruits.
Courtesy psrobin

5. You don't need to remove flowers from tomato plants when transplanting. According to LeHoullier, this doesn't re-direct the plant's energy toward growing roots - and it will make you miss out on some early tomatoes.

6. Tomatoes may not require fertilizer. It all depends on your soil. If you've prepared the soil ahead of planting - adding finished organic matter like compost and aged manure - and if you've tested your soil and amended it as needed, fertilizing may not be necessary at all. Perhaps, the author suggests, you might use a little finished compost as a side dressing now and then. An exception is if you grow tomatoes in pots. This requires more watering, which depletes the soil of nutrients faster, which means fertilizing will be necessary.

7. It's okay to let tomato plants wilt. All tomato plants will wilt when hot sun is overhead; it does not necessarily mean they need watering. Wilting is simply the plant's way of conserving moisture. However, regular watering is still needed, particularly once plants are heavy with fruit.

8. There is no such thing as a low-acid, modern tomato. If you can, you may have heard that modern tomatoes are low acid and therefore not safe to water bath can. LeHoullier says this is absolutely false. Instead, a recent study shows the sugar in these tomatoes masks their acidity.

Courtesy Petar43
9. Color has nothing to do with flavor. Although LeHoullier says most of his favorite tomatoes aren't true reds.

10. A few heirlooms are less reliable - including some favorites, like Brandywine. One year they may do poorly, and another year, they may produce abundantly.

11. If you don't get fruit, don't blame a lack of bees. Tomatoes are self-fruitful, meaning they don't need pollination to produce fruit. LeHoullier says lack of fruit usually means the blossoms dropped before fruit could set - something that's common during hot, summer weather. Pruning may also cause lack of fruit. And, in rare cases, you might have a plant with a genetic mutation that prevents fruit setting.

* Title image courtesy of  Rob Bertholf

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