Tomatoes: Kinds, Pruning, Allergies, And Fruit Versus Vegetable


When growing tomatoes, the most basic things the organic vegetable gardener has to decide about is whether to grow determinate or indeterminate tomato plants.

Here's the difference In Growing Type


Determinate


Determinate plants are bush types that will ripen the majority of the fruit within a very few days. All the fruit ripens - bang - all at once. This is great if you are using them for canning or freezing or doing some form of processing with them.

You get a ton of fruit when you need it. Or, at least you get a ton of fruit when the plants say they're ready. There will be a few stragglers coming along afterwards but the bulk of the crop will ripen together. This kind of growth is best suited for sprawling plant growing (see below).

Indeterminate


Indeterminateplants ripen in sequence. The first fruit set ripens before the second set; each set lower down on the stem ripens before the next higher one. This kind of growth is best suited for staking and fresh eating. This plant will continue to ripen and set fruit until frost knocks on your garden door.


A Decision To Be Made - Sprawl or Stake


So, to complicate things a bit... Before you plant, there is a basic decision to be made.

Do you have an abundance of garden space to let them sprawl or are you restricted so you have to stake them? Sprawling plants yield more per plant but staked fruit yield more per square foot of garden space (you can crowd tomatoes a bit when staking).

Cages are an intermediate form of staking. Cages do let you see the ripening fruit. Do set your cages deeply into the garden soil; I see more heavily weighted cages collapsing under the weight of a mature tomato plant than I want to share.

And for the record, those .99 cent "cages" you buy from light wire aren't worth the powder to blow them.

Buy or make heavy duty ones from concrete reinforcing wire if you want them to support a mature tomato vine. They'll cost more but they do the job and last for years.

Sprawling Tomatoes


Sprawling plants should be put into the full sunshine (did I mention that tomatoes want full sunshine?) at 24 to 30 inch spacing. The rows should be 4 to 5 feet apart. This plant can really grow.

Staked plants can be grown on 12 to 18 inch centers with rows 3 feet across. The rule of thumb is that each plant gets one square foot of growing space around it on all sides if you're growing it straight up.

So, determinate plants do much better when left to sprawl or when grown in cages and indeterminate plants do better when staked.

tomato sucker

Tomato 'King of Siberia' an early mid-season heirloom tomato variety we grow (and love) in our own vegetable garden

Question About Sprawling


Is there special care needed if I let my plants sprawl?

No. Just plant, water, take care of pests and harvest. Pretty simple really.

Pruning


In growing tomatoes, how do you prune staked plants?

As my tomatoes grow up the stakes, I tie them to the stake every six inches with binder twine. While I have some left over from the farm, any thick twine or old pantyhose will do well.

You simply want to avoid cutting into the stem with thin supports.

I pick a single leader - a single stem - to train to the stake and I remove all other branches.

Suckers


You'll often see a "sucker" trying to grow from between the stem and a big leaf. Pinch all these suckers off and only allow the main stem to grow.

Fruit will develop on this main stem and you'll be able to harvest four to five fruit sets from your growing tomatoes before frost (depending on your location you might even get more) The plant will easily reach six feet tall in decent soil. I usually "top" (cut off the leader) when it gets that tall and while I still pick off any suckers, the research shows that the upper fruit sets will ripen faster if you "top" your plants a month before you are going to destroy your plants (or frost is going to destroy your plants).

I prune the suckers out on staked plants but leave them to grow on caged or sprawling plants.

tomato sucker

A tomato sucker - the small growth coming from the leaf stem and the main stem - waiting to be pinched off

Regular Watering


Tomatoes require weekly watering. Remember if you are growing tomatoes that this fruit is 95%+ water and if you withhold water, you create physiological disease problems as well as small fruit.

Tomatoes do really well on an organic soil and working several shovels of compost into the soil around the base of each plant before planting is a good idea. Weekly or bi-weekly feedings of a fish emulsion will produce bumper crops.

Tomato Allergies


A true tomato allergy is an extremely rare condition given tomatoes are one of the most eaten foods in North America.

I'm told however that an allergic reactions can exist.

Cross Reaction


Much of the time, the reaction is found to be a cross-reaction to another item in the prepared food such as a gluten binder or coloring agent in the bread or dressing.

The only way to definitely tell if there is a reaction to tomato itself is to have an allergy test done by a qualified physician. This testing may include blood tests including an IgE allergy antibody test, blood counts, possible nasal smears, and a full food diary review and symptomatic medical history.

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Book cover Gardening Tomatoes

Partial Allergy


Some folks say they are allergic to some kinds of tomatoes but can eat others, i.e. can't eat the red but can eat the yellow-skinned varieties. There is no literature in the medical Internet to support or contradict this kind of allergy. Again, a visit to a qualified physician is the only way to identify an allergy.

Are Tomatoes Equally Acidic?


Some folks say they can eat low acid tomatoes but not the high acid ones. The data shows that all tomatoes are equally acidic.

What varies is the flavanoids that give the taste of acidity but the acidity itself is not a variable.

Note that in both of these cases, a food diary is important and should be kept for a month or more (noting symptoms after meals) to share with the physician if you suspect a tomato allergy

Is The Tomato A Fruit Or A Vegetable?


Is the tomato a fruit? Well, yes it is.

Botanically Speaking


Botanically speaking, a fruit is developed from the ovary in the base of a flower and contains the seeds of the plant.

So tomatoes develop from the base of the tomato flower and contain the seeds for next year's crop. (other examples of this would be apples, oranges, blueberries, and raspberries).

Vegetables, on the Other Hand


A "vegetable" is technically using another part of the plant such as the leaves of cabbages and lettuce. Or the roots of carrots and potatoes and stalks of celery.

These vegetables do not develop from the base of a flower and do not contain the seeds for next year's plants.

U.S. Supreme Court


In 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while tomatoes were botanically a fruit, in U.S. law they were a vegetable.

You see, domestic producers were afraid of outside competition and if the tomato was a vegetable, it would be protected by the 10% tariff imposed on imported vegetables and the loophole that exempted tomatoes was closed.

It remains closed to this day to protect U.S. growers.

But in common speaking, we refer to tomatoes as vegetables because we use them in this way.

So - a tomato is a fruit of the tomato plant and we use it as a vegetable.



If you want to see specific details - almost a mini-course - on growing tomatoes, I've posted it here.

Got Tomato Gardening Questions? Here's Where Doug Answers Them