Tomato season adds variety to area salads

The tomato is a popular plant in a home garden. Photo courtesy of Janet Heishman

Vegetable gardening doesn’t get much easier than growing tomatoes.

Scientifically a fruit, it’s America’s favorite vegetable and the No. 1 most-grown crop, said Janet Heishman, co-owner of Gabalot Gardens in Strasburg.

“It’s probably the easiest vegetable to start, besides the green bean,” she said.

But, without the right conditions, tomatoes are also easy to kill.

Specializing in tomato and vegetable starts for the home gardener, Heishman said although it’s a little too early for tomatoes yet, it’s nearly time for starting seeds indoors.

In the northern Shenandoah Valley, the last threat of frost is around May 10-15, so Heishman recommends gardeners count back six weeks on a calendar to when they should begin their indoor garden — around March 30-April 4.

Following instructions on seed packets, grow tomatoes where they will receive daylight but also have air circulation. Run a small clip-on fan or oscillating fan for about four hours a day to prepare plants for outdoor conditions.

“That will build a stronger plant,” Heishman said.

After transplanting them in mid-May, use small shields made from cardboard for a couple days to protect plants from harsh morning light and help them acclimate to the sudden change in conditions that she said can shock plants.

“That sun comes up in the morning pretty intense on the plant,” Heishman said. “It’s like a magnifying glass.”

If there’s no morning dew on a tomato plant’s leaves, the plant will get sunburn, she said, repeating a line many older farmers have told her.

That goes for all types of tomatoes, she said.

“They’re all about the same,” Heishman said. “They’re just different shapes, different colors, different flavors.”

Starting plants inside is all fine and good, but Terry Fogle, retail manager at Fort Valley Nursery in Woodstock, said it isn’t necessary.

“A lot of people start them indoors to give themselves a little bit of a head start on their tomatoes,” he said.

But he stressed that starting them outside in the garden won’t make them ripen any sooner.

Tomato plants need the soil to be warm enough day and night, he said. Otherwise, “they’ll just sit there.”

They also need enough water, but not enough to drown them. Use potting soil if starting them indoors, he said, and fertilize them sparingly, especially if using a high nitrogen fertilizer.

Heishman even recommended using a seed starting mix, sold at garden centers or farming stores.

Those serious about growing tomatoes might benefit from having their soil tested to determine nutrient quality, which Fogle said varies considerably throughout the region.

Tomatoes won’t grow well in a high clay area and should not be planted in a low spot of the yard that doesn’t drain well.

Rotating tomatoes each year to different parts of the garden will help spread nutrients throughout the plot and ward of sickness in disease-prone crops.

Both experts warned never to plant tomatoes near a black walnut tree, which Fogle said exudes a toxin called juglone that inhibits tomato growth.

Plant tomatoes outside the drip line of a walnut tree’s canopy, said Heishman, who even separates black walnut leaves from mulch used on tomatoes.

Mulching, she said, is important for helping prevent the spread of disease from the soil onto the plant’s leaves when it rains.

Though likely to recommend organic seeds through her store, Pot Town Organics at 181 W. King St., Strasburg, Heishman said she isn’t as strict with tomato seeds.

“Tomatoes are not genetically modified in this country,” she said.

Even organic companies sell hybrid tomatoes, which she said are a combination of two or more types of tomatoes. But heirloom tomatoes are important to keep the market going, too.

“We need the heirlooms, because that’s our gene pool, and we can make hybrids,” she said. “We need variety.”

“Mother nature likes variety.”

Visit Gabalot Gardens at 373 Green Acre Dr, Strasburg, or call 540-465-3246. Visit Fort Valley Nursery at 1175 S. Hisey Ave., Woodstock, or call 540-459-5151.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com