Sunday, October 12, 2008

Growing Tomatoes: How Many Plants Do You Need? (And What To Do If You End Up with Too Many Tomatoes)

Just Juice Them Using My Homemade Tomato Juice Recipe!

It hasn't been a good year for tomatoes in the garden, partly because I never got around to starting any seeds (for the second embarrassing year in a row), and partly because the mostly boring varieties of purchased plants I had to make due with didn't go into the ground until June (okay, okay, and maybe a few in July). I did end up with about 20 producing plants and a small but fairly tasty harvest.

My favorite variety of the year is a tasty little plum type with a dark reddish green skin and interior. It has a really nice flavor, was a good producer, and didn't have any disease or pest problems. Unfortunately I never wrote the name down and seem to have misplaced the tag that came with the one plant I bought. If I figure it out, I'll definitely let you know. I'm pretty sure it was from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (great seeds, great Missouri company), but the only description I could find that seemed right said the tomatoes were six ounces each, and these are less than one.

I'm still getting a few ripe sweet cherry, Celebrity, and Arkansas Travelers (an always reliable variety in my garden), and the Romas are just coming into their prime, so I've been swaddling the plants in floating row covers and old bedsheets at night to protect them from the 37 degree temperatures we've been having (though now we're headed back up into the 50s at night). Soon I'll get tired of all that covering and uncovering and will turn whatever's left into a big batch of my popular salsa-like green tomato relish (no canning required unless you want to save it for months).

People sometimes ask me why I like to have at least 70 or 80 tomato plants in the garden. "So I can be sure of getting at least a few tomatoes!" is how I always reply. This question is never posed by anyone who has tried to garden in Missouri. While talking tomatoes with my blueberry supplier last summer, he confessed that he usually puts out 200 tomato plants—and that's just for him and his wife.

On the other end of the growth chart, my all-around talented friend Finny picks enough tomatoes to eat her fill all summer and put up several jars of what she swears is the best tomato sauce ever from the two measly plants in her Northern California garden. These plants apparently "grow to gargantuan sizes and impose their overabundance on us with unrelenting ferocity." It's just way too easy to garden in California.

So how many tomato plants should you put in your garden? It obviously depends on where you're located and what you plan to do with your bounty. If you just want some slicers for salads, a couple of plants will probably suffice. But if you're hoping to line your pantry shelves with dozens of jars of tomatoes and sauce, I'd say you'll want at least 10 or 12 of the meaty paste varieties.

Last year my 46 tomato plants gave me less than 46 pounds of tomatoes (a terrible yield), which might sound like a lot until you start preserving them. It takes an amazing number of tomatoes to fill up one little quart-sized container. I also never knew how many fresh tomatoes I was capable of eating until I broke down and bought some from a neighbor last year while waiting for mine to mature. Um, like twenty-five pounds in a couple of weeks. Joe helped of course, but still. Even I had trouble believing it. But indulging like this in summer is of course the only way to survive the rest of the year sans fresh tomatoes. And besides, I really do love them.

When I moved from Northern California to Missouri back in 1994, I was told that the general rule for growing anything was that you need to plant one for the weather, one for the bugs, one to die, and one for yourself. That's about right, though for a lot of things six would be better.

You also never know what's going to do well and what isn't, which is why I like to plant several different varieties of tomatoes (and everything else). And unless I really don't care for the taste of one, I always give each kind at least two summers to prove itself. A total disappointment one year might very well be the star of the season the next—or vice versa. The first year I planted Thai Pink Egg tomatoes they were a delicious success. The compact plants were loaded with little egg-sized fruits that started out white and ended up the most beautiful dark pink—while turning about five gorgeous shades of pink in between. The next year was promising, but as soon as the plants put on all those white eggs they promptly turned brown and died.

I always recommend having at least one cherry tomato plant because not only will your first tomatoes be ripe earlier, but the small size of the fruits means there's less of a chance for things to go wrong. There are dozens of types of easy to grow heirloom cherry tomatoes, and I love to experiment each year (well, except this one) with various colors and sizes. Some of my all-time favorites are red and yellow currant (a pain to pick but so adorable) and yellow pear, which add a touch of tasty elegance to everything.

Sometimes the garden gods smile do down on us, and we end up with a tomato surplus. You can never have too many plum tomatoes around (I'm particularly fond of San Marzanos) because this meaty type is perfect for canning and freezing as well as drying (a food dehydrator is a wonderful thing to have). Some day I may even give in and turn on the oven for hours on a sweltering day so I can make the slow roasted tomatoes my food blogging friends are always raving about.

Regular salad or slicing tomatoes aren't as easy to preserve because they're usually more juice than meat. Two years ago I turned an excess into a dressing/dip that I called Susan's Seven Second Tomato Glut Solution, but now I know better. If I ever have an overabundance of tomatoes again, whatever isn't tossed into my new favorite quick and easy gazpacho will be turned into homemade tomato juice. In fact, I'm so in love with this simple, scrumptious, amazingly good-for-you juice that I'm planning to increase my harvest odds next year by putting at least 100 tomato plants in the garden. I already have something like 45 different kinds of heirloom seeds in my stash. Maybe I'll go ahead and try some of each. Can't hurt. Wish me luck.

So how did your tomatoes grow this year? Any stories or tips you'd like to share? What about your favorite varieties-or, better yet, save us some trouble and tell us which kinds of tomatoes you won't be growing again.

These Mexican Jumping Bean Slaw Tacos Were a Hit Last Year

What else do I do with tomatoes?
How to Freeze Tomatoes the Really Easy Way
Saving the Harvest with No Sugar Green Tomato Relish
Quick and Easy Gazpacho
Fresh Tomato Pizza Sauce
Fiesta Cottage Cheese Veggie Dip (and Factory Tours)
Savory Tomato Pesto Biscuit Crust Pie
Fresh Tomato & Basil Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
Tomato Pesto Pizza & My Favorite Basil Pesto Recipe
Purple Basil Pesto & White Bean Dip
Three No-Cook Summer Recipes: Mexican Jumping Bean Slaw, Easy Vegetarian Tacos, & High Kickin' Creamy Tomato Dressing
Cream Cheese & Tomato Sandwiches On Italian Black Olive Cheeks
The Easiest Greek Salad Ever
My Seven Second Tomato Glut Solution
Colors Of Summer Salad
Summer In A Bowl

© Copyright 2008, the award-winning blog where despite our whining, there's always something ready to eat in the garden, something delicious on the menu, and something that tells us we'll never give up trying to grow too many tomatoes.