In the interest of keeping the enthusiasm going and not allowing the joy of the first garden get away, I suggest to all new comers to start small and with a few favorite vegetables. Each year more can be added, but small is better to begin. My first tomato plant was grown in a five gallon bucket on the porch of a three story walk-up in Boston, overlooking the alley. I was 24 and had never grown vegetables before, but we had tomatoes! I think, if I could do that with little experience, anyone can.
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable to grow, though they are really a fruit. It seems Congress changed their status to reduce their tax status. Tomatoes were grown many centuries ago by the Aztecs. They have been a controversial topic for centuries with the suspicion of being poison by many, until Ben Franklin discovered otherwise. Even the spelling and pronunciation of this food has been a constant discussion.
Whatever you call it, the tomato is a valuable part of any vegetable garden. Every gardener anxiously awaits the first taste of a vine ripened tomato after planning and preparing and watering and hoping this wonderful tropical plant will survive our, often, questionable weather. With the bad year we had last year, I thought I would give a few pointers to prevent disaster for this year’s crops.
Tomatoes like deep rich, acid soil, the deeper the better. I try for at least two feet for my tomatoes. Deep containers and deep framed raised beds work much better and are easier to care for than flat rows. With the heavy rains and cool temperatures of last year, drainage and air circulation within the plant leaves and stems was a key to survival for even the smallest garden. Soil rich in organic matter and well composted manures will give a good foundation for health through the season to combat the fungus and diseases that the plants might be subject to. The beneficial bacteria and other wonderful things in organic matter are the best defense against most problems.
When planting the young plant into its summer home, plant deeply and securely, so the plant is deeper than it was in its original container. Tomato plants are vines and need as much root source as possible to become established for the season.
I like to use both a tall stake and a large tomato cage to prepare for the support of the future growth and bountiful fruit. As the plant grows and starts to set the fruit, I check often for sucker shoots at the junction of the stem and branch. I remove them when they are young, but others grow out and bear fruit, as well.
I do companion planting with tomatoes with marigold flowers and basil plants. The marigolds keep away many insects, while the basil seems to help the flavor and reminds me to pick it when I go for the tomatoes for a sandwich, salad or pesto.
When the plants start to get too tall and wide, I start to prune the tops and branches to conserve the energy into the fruit, rather into the leaves. This also allows more circulation of air and light to flow through the branches to prevent mold and mildew from taking hold.
Some other vegetables that are fun to grow, when getting started with vegetable gardening, are string beans and cucumbers. Both can be planted in containers or in beds and will produce an abundant crop. I often plant string beans in a container with a trellis, bordered by Nasturtium flowers. This makes a lovely addition to any yard, deck or patio and is completely edible all summer! The Nasturtium flowers are a beautiful addition to salads, and the leaves taste like baby spinach with black pepper. String beans are always fun to nibble right off the vine, anytime. In August, plant peas in the same container, to take over the string beans as they go by. Peas and Nasturtiums will often last through October and longer. Cucumbers can be planted in the same way as the string beans, using a trellis and companion planting of Nasturtiums.
Whatever plants you may choose to grow this year, I hope you are able to relax and enjoy the garden and the natural beauty around you. Whatever you do not plant, remember the local farmers market can fill in the gaps for you. Enjoy the fruits of your labors and the joy of vegetables in their seasons.
Bettylou Sandy, AOLCP,
Owner of Bettylou’s Gardening
Adjunct Faculty Manchester Community College
CT NOFA Board member