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DARREL KOEHLER: Now is the time to plant tomatoes as well as other warm-season crops

What's a garden without tomatoes? Not much is the simple response. Most people look forward to that first taste of fresh, home-grown tomatoes each summer. After months of the store-bought kind, these succulent red orbs of summer are well worth th...

Darrel Koehler
Darrel Koehler

What's a garden without tomatoes? Not much is the simple response. Most people look forward to that first taste of fresh, home-grown tomatoes each summer. After months of the store-bought kind, these succulent red orbs of summer are well worth the wait.

Tomatoes are one of the most widely used fruits, and the surplus from your patch can be canned or frozen and used for sauces, stews, casseroles and pizzas. The Prairie Gardener particularly enjoys old-fashioned tomato preserves, a sweet jam-like concoction, which can enliven toast on a cold January morning. But, we digress.

Tomatoes are the most popular planted fruit in the country. Besides gardens, they can be grown in containers or even amongst flowers. They just require sun and a little room to stretch. Years ago, gardeners were told to plant their tomatoes after Decoration Day. Back then, that's was what we called Memorial Day, which always occurred May 30. Today, Memorial Day is one of the movable holidays, and it doesn't work as well as a marker for setting out plants. Early last week, for example, we were forced to dig out winter coats once again as more cold invaded.

When purchasing tomato plants, the Prairie Gardener plans on about a dozen. He selects packs of two to four and tries to include early, mid-season and late tomatoes and then he's covered from July through November. Occasionally, he will add an heirloom tomato to the mix for variety, such as Brandywine.

Heirloom tomatoes


Growing heirloom tomatoes can become addicting. They have a great history, and they come in a wonderful array of shapes, sizes and colors -- something you don't find in today's uniform hybrid tomato varieties. Heirlooms are standards (not hybrids), which means you can save the seed and expect something like the parent when your replant. With a hybrid, you have no idea of what the offspring will be like.

Brandywine is probably the heirloom variety gardeners know best. It is an Amish variety, dating from the 1880s. The variety is said to be the favorite of Ben Quisenberry, who saved seed, improved it and passed it on. Fruits have a reputation for being exceptionally rich, succulent tomatoes. They are reddish-pink, with a light creamy flesh and average 12 ounces in size. They can grow up to 2 pounds in weight. They take 80 days to mature, so start early and expect a late season harvest.

Old German is another heirloom. This tomato has extreme color ranging from yellow to orange to red. Originally grown in a Mennonite community in Virginia, it is best grown for sauces as they are so meaty. They aren't much for slicing, though.

Another variety is Mortgage Lifter, which is said to have been developed in the 1930s in West Virginia. The breeder, who had no experience in the field, crossed four of the largest tomatoes he could find and developed this variety. Growers from as far as 200 miles would drive in and purchase the plants for a dollar each in the 1940s. It got its name because the tomatoes are said to have lifted his mortgage in a span of six years. While not one of the best looking tomatoes, they are meaty and full of flavor.

There are determinate or indeterminate tomato varieties. Determinate means they will get so big and stop growth, ripening what fruit is then on the vine. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing until killed by a hard frost. They require much more room than the fore-mentioned kind and you will have some green tomatoes.

Growing tomatoes

Now is a perfect time to plant tomatoes as well as other warm-season crops such as eggplant and peppers. First, warm the soil by spading or tilling before setting out tomato transplants. Set tomato plants 3 to 4 feet apart in the row with 5 feet between the rows. Set transplants deeply to protect them from drying winds. Roots will develop along the buried stem.

Protect transplants from cutworms by placing a coffee can (remove both ends) over the plant or place a collar of newsprint around the base of the plant. In the event of late frost, be ready to cover tomatoes and other warm-season crops by covering with old sheets, curtain or whatever is handy.


Tomatoes won't produce well in a weed patch, so keep it weeded and hoed. Avoid overhead sprinkling as it can cause blight. Water at the base of the plant in the morning so you will minimize splashing and the amount of times the leaves are wet. Use mulches such as grass clippings, straw or compost to keep spores from splashing up from the soil. Avoid working with tomatoes when the foliage is wet to prevent spreading spores. Tomatoes require at least six hours of sunlight. Don't crowd so you will have good air movement. Use cages or stakes to keep tomato fruits off the soil. .

Tomato blight will be dealt with in a future column.

Sultry star

The tuberous begonia has been called a sultry South American beauty for good reason. A shady superstar, this plant can electrify the low light areas of a summer garden like no other. This begonia offers several flower forms ranging from gorgeous, velvety flowers up to 6 inches in diameter to small, multi-flowered versions. In between there are varieties that range from the camellia-like picotee to the ruffled double-flowered types, which are so popular in hanging baskets.

With our short season, it's best to begin with started tubers so you will get a jump on Jack Frost. Don't plant until all frost danger has passed. They like cool, partially shaded locations as intense sun or heat will burn the leaves and flowers. Amazingly, tuberous begonias can still produce a fair number of flowers in locations with very deep shade. Soil is important for they prefer a moisture-retentive soil with high humus content.

Pinching back side-stems and buds will promote a more vigorous plant with fewer but bigger flowers.

Black knot

If you raise plums or cherries, you will probably have found strange black growths clinging to the branches. The problem is especially bad if you have chokecherries or Canada cherries. It is a fungal disease, brought on by warm, wet weather. You can apply a fungicide early in the season, or you can simply prune the growths back at from 2 to 3 inches below the knot. The pruning practice isn't a cure, but it will slow the disease and extend the tree's life.


Ash borers

With the recent discovery of emerald ash borers in St. Paul, a state quarantine has been issued for three counties in Minnesota -- Ramsey, Hennepin and Houston in extreme southeastern Minnesota. This applies to firewood, ash trees and ash tree products. We will deal with more details of this problem later, but it will spell problems for this region sooner than earlier anticipated.

Ticket sales

Tickets for the 25th anniversary Grand Forks Horticulture Society garden tour (July 18-19) go on sale June 10. Ticket locations will be announced soon; they will no longer be sold at individual garden sites. The Myra Museum will be the starting point for the tour as well the site for the popular plant sale and garden garage sale. Info: gfhort@usa.net .

Koehler's column is published every Sunday in this section. 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 4:10 p.m. Thursdays on KNOX Radio 1310 (A.M.)

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