PRAIRIE GARDENER: How we love our home-grown tomatoes

When it comes to delectable treats from the garden, tomatoes probably top the list. If we plan ahead, we can enjoy home-grown tomatoes from early July until the first hard frost of autumn.

Darrel Koehler
Darrel Koehler

When it comes to delectable treats from the garden, tomatoes probably top the list. If we plan ahead, we can enjoy home-grown tomatoes from early July until the first hard frost of autumn.

Tomatoes are one of the more difficult fruits to grow as they are prone to a myriad of diseases, including three forms of blight. But if we follow some basic rules, those problems can be conquered. Tomatoes didn't end up on American dinner tables until the 1820s. Prior to that time, they were grown as ornamental plants and were known as love apples. Some brave person took a bite, survived and tomatoes are now one of our leading fruits.

Tomatoes can be used in salads, salsa, sauces and chili. However, the best way is probably just in the garden on a hot summer day. How we love our home-grown tomatoes.

Native to South America, tomatoes were introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers. However, tomatoes weren't listed in an American seed catalog until 1817. Many of the old heritage cultivars have been lost, but a few, such as Brandywine, can still be found.

Tomatoes are classified by growing habits into two categories. Determinate or bush tomatoes produce shoots that end in a flower cluster, and stop growing while they are fairly short. Indeterminate or vine tomatoes produce shoots that continue to grow after fruit set. Often they are still growing until claimed by frost.


Tomato types

These two groups are divided into sub-classes. Main-crop tomatoes include varieties that range in size from 4 to more than 14 ounces. Patio and cherry types bear smaller and sweeter fruit, but produce very heavy yields. Most of these have fruits that are about 1 inch in diameter. Pasta or paste tomatoes were developed for cooking and are less juicy and sweet than other varieties.

Currant tomatoes are even smaller than cherry types. Fairly new to gardeners, these have changed little from the wild tomatoes that grow in the Andes. Heirloom types are open-pollinated varieties generally more than a century old, with often superior flavor.

When picking tomato transplants for your garden, pick a variety so you will have a long season of fresh tomatoes. Plastic tags that come with the plant, describe maturity, disease resistance and size.

Tomato culture

Transplant when tomato seedlings are 6 to 8 inches tall. Space the plants 18 to 24 inches and the rows, 3 feet apart. Then transplant by digging a hole somewhat shallower than the height of the plant, but no more than 6 inches deep. Rotate your tomato patch annually, if possible.

Set the plant in the hole so the top 4 inches remain above the soil. Backfill the hole, removing any tomato leaves that would be covered with soil. To prevent cutworm damage, use milk cartons, coffee cans or simply wrap a stripe of newsprint around the base of the plant. Water well. Transplanting works best on cool, cloudy days.

Protect plants if the mercury drops below 45 degree below F. Old blankets work well. If tomatoes are in containers bring them indoors. Wire cages work well to support tomatoes. They keep the fruits away from the earth and possible disease pathogens. You also can use wooden stakes and trellises. Prune away the non-flowering shoots that arise from the main stem. In late summer, remove all flowers and fruit that will not ripen before the first frost.


Fertilize every two to three weeks throughout the season. Tomatoes are sensitive to nutrient levels in the soil as well as to airborne chemicals. Mulch tomatoes well with lawn clippings, compost or similar materials. This will keep the soil from splashing up during a rain and spreading disease. It also conserves moisture and keeps the soil cool.

Spring treat

Along with rhubarb and horseradish, another spring treat that end up on our tables this time of year is asparagus. Lightly fried in olive oil with a touch of garlic, it is far superior to the stuff in many stores. If you don't have an asparagus patch, you can start one. Begin with one or two-year-old crowns found in garden centers.

Locate your patch in an area that won't be disturbed. Asparagus prefers a well-drained location with lots of sunlight. Mix in lots of organic material such as such as compost or rotted manure. Spread out the root system on the crowns and plant 4 to 6 inches below the surface of the soil. Place crown buds up. Space the plants 18 inches apart. Cover with 2 inches of soil. Place the rest of the soil alongside the row.

When the new shoots begin coming up, use the soil you saved to fill in the trench until you reach the level of the garden. Water your patch during summer if needed, keeping it weed free. You also can add additional compost or rotted manure. Don't harvest any spears the first year, taking only a few the second and third years. After that you can harvest on a regular basis. Bend the spear almost at ground level and it will snap off. The harvest season for both rhubarb and asparagus is July 1. These plants can then gain strength for the coming winter.

Visit a garden

One of the great horticultural attractions in Grand Forks is the Japanese Garden in Sertoma Park, 3300 11th Ave. S. This is behind the Altru Health System facilities. It was dedicated in 2003 as a gift from our sister city of Awano, Japan. Visitors will find a special placement of rocks and stone lanterns, as well as plants and trees. It is a free attraction. There is ample parking. Good walking shoes are necessity.

"This garden has become a piece of our community, just as Awano has become a part of our community," said Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown. "Its beauty is a part of our beauty. Its character is part of our character. And its spirit is a part of our spirit."


Sweet scent

While tulips and daffodils may be the most popular spring-flowering bulbs, the sweet-scented hyacinth also deserves a place in your garden. A member of the lily family, it was brought to Europe from Asia. Hyacinth are hardy and can bloom for many seasons. They have done well this year despite our harsh winter and spring.

Koehler is the Herald's garden columnist. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008,Grand Forks ND 58206-6008.Tune in the weekly gardening show airing at 1:10 p.m. Tuesdays on KNOX Radio1310 (A.M.).


What To Read Next
Get Local