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Get ready, get set: Plant tomatoes in early May

Chef’s Choice Green is green on the outside and whitish inside and has a citrus flavor, Rita Arnold of Arnold’s Greenhouse says.
Chef’s Choice Green is green on the outside and whitish inside and has a citrus flavor, Rita Arnold of Arnold’s Greenhouse says. Courtesy photo

The first week of May is the usual time to start planting tomatoes, but some gardeners haven’t been able to help themselves and already are gambling. Others at least have been starting seeds or shopping for plants, to be sure to get the varieties they want.

The most popular vegetable in a country that gets more into growing its own food each year is always abounding in new colors and flavors, improvements and novelties.

One of the characteristics that people are looking for in all plants is compactness – the ability to plant in small spaces, even in pots. Rita Arnold of Arnold’s Greenhouse recommends not going any smaller than a 7-gallon size for a tomato (generally 14 inches wide). BushSteak is the first beefsteak-size tomato that can be grown in a pot, she says.

This year also brings the closest to a black tomato – Black Beauty, which we probably won’t be finding in garden centers yet but can watch grow in the demonstration garden at the Extension Service (the master gardeners started theirs from seeds).

Speaking of the Extension Service, Tomato Day this year will be July 23 – a mere three months from this weekend.

Here are some of the varieties and characteristics to look for in your tomato-buying this year along with some growing tips.

Planting and care tips

Know your terminology: Indeterminate tomatoes are the big vining types; they produce over a longer season. Determinate tomatoes are more compact, and some of them can be grown in pots; their harvest window is also shorter.

Planting time: The soil temperature should be at least 55 degrees consistently. The air temperature should be above 45. You can plant them pretty much through the month of May for a summer harvest.

The master gardeners probably will plant their tomatoes the first week of May before Herb Day on May 7 unless the weather takes a cold turn at that time.

Sun and water: Plant tomatoes in a spot where they get at least six and preferably eight or more hours of direct sunlight a day. They need an inch of water a week.

Planting depth: “Plant just a bit deeper than the pot,” McMahon says. “I don’t usually recommend burying them a lot deeper unless they’re gangly. Even then it’s better to get small plants. Unless you grew them yourself. Then you’re stuck with them.”

Fertilizer: Fertilize at planting time if your soil isn’t rich or if gardening in pots; otherwise, fertilize when plants put on fruits, McMahon says.

Mulching: Wait until the soil warms up before mulching; otherwise you’ll hold in the cool.

Spacing: Space transplants 12 to 24 inches apart for determinate varieties, 14 to 20 inches apart for staked indeterminates, and 24 to 36 inches apart for unstaked indeterminates, according to the Extension Service in Johnson County.

Pruning: “On a determinate plant, I usually won’t do any pruning,” McMahon says. “If there’s a sucker coming right off the base I might take that one off. Otherwise not a lot of pruning.

“For indeterminates, I prune the suckers below the first flower cluster usually. You can prune above if you’re trying to keep the plant a little smaller or thinned out more. Pruning below the first flower cluster improves the air flow … and there’s not a significant decline in yield.”

What’s new, tried and true

Last year in the Extension demo garden, Beefy Boy produced the largest tomatoes, McMahon says but was prone to cracking (but, in fairness, many tomatoes were last year).

SunGold is a yellow cherry tomato that also had some cracking last year, but its improvement, SunSugar, is supposed to be more crack-resistant , McMahon said.

Speaking of sweet tomatoes, Sugar Rush is the sweetest cherry tomato that Arnold has tasted. It is indeterminate and does best in the ground.

Chef’s Choice tomatoes have been All America Selection winners the past few years and get some good local reviews.

Chef’s Choice Orange is an AAS winner from 2014 that has good yield and taste and produced late into the season for the master gardeners last year, McMahon said. “I was very impressed with that variety,” she said. Chef’s Choice Pink was an AAS winner last year, and Chef’s Choice Green is a selection this year.

Chef’s Choice Green is green on the outside (even when ripe) and has a citrus flavor and a whitish flesh, Rita Arnold of Arnold’s Greenhouse said in one of her Wichita talks this spring.

Denning’s Greenhouse is carrying a couple of Russian tomatoes that should extend the season of tomato growing, both earlier and later. “We’ve been getting quite a few people getting them for the novelty,” greenhouse owner Jim Denning said.

Siberian is a little tomato that can set fruit at 38 degrees, and it matures in only 48 days, which is extremely early.

Another Russian, Paul Robeson, is a larger tomato that reaches maturity in 80 days but also produces very well in lower temperatures, Jim Denning says. “It has a unique sweet and smoky flavor.”

At Dutch’s Greenhouse, Fox Cherry is a popular cherry tomato, while Snow Fairy is short and strong for containers, Ron Marcum says. Rapunzel is back, she of the flowing manes of tomatoes, is back.

McMahon cites a University of Missouri trial that recorded the best yields from these varieties: Celebrity, Beefmaster, Crista and Big Beef.

The master gardeners will be planting these varieties in containers this year: the trailing Maskotka and Firecracker, and the upright Little Napoli and Patio Plum.

Jason French of Stutzman’s points to what he calls “marriage tomatoes” – heirlooms crossed with a modern hybrid for “the best of both worlds. They have the flavor and size of the old and the productivity of the new.” Brandy Boy is an example of a hybrid crossed with the heirloom Brandywine.

The majority of the tomatoes you will find at the garden centers are either heirlooms such as the wonderfully named Box Car Willie or hybrids such as Celebrity. Heirlooms are treasured for their flavor but often lack the disease resistance of newer varieties.

Grafted tomatoes can still be found for sale. They are two varieties of tomatoes that have been spliced together to gain the strengths of both. They are also more expensive. McMahon said that the master gardeners have not planted them since 2011, when the heat made sure that no tomato plants produced anything, so the trial was not a good one.

“We definitely observed the (grafted) plants were bigger and vigorous and healthier. But yieldwise we didn’t have anything produce, period,” McMahon said. Another grafted-tomato planting at the demo garden has not been ruled out; it’s just that “we’ve been distracted by the other wonderful things in the world of tomatoes.”

Join the club.

Annie Calovich: 316-268-6596, @anniecalovich