Tomatoes are the most popular crop grown in vegetable gardens. (Susan Mulvihill)
Tomatoes are the most popular crop grown in vegetable gardens. (Susan Mulvihill)

Nothing like a homegrown, juicy tomato

If today’s photo is making your mouth water, be sure to save room in your garden for some tomato plants. They are easy to grow and absolutely nothing can compare to the taste of a homegrown tomato.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are slow to develop so I plant them indoors around the third week of March. If you haven’t started yours yet, don’t worry because seedlings are available at garden centers all around town.

Even though our frost-free growing season is about 120 days long, be sure to select varieties that will mature in well under 80 days. Look for this information on the plant stakes.

In addition to the old standby, ‘Early Girl,’ other terrific short-season varieties include ‘Siberia,’ ‘Early Goliath,’ ‘Oregon Spring,’ ‘Siletz,’ ‘Stupice’ and ‘Polar Beauty.’

Some nice early cherry varieties are ‘Italian Ice,’ ‘Sweet Baby Girl,’ ‘Sungold’ and ‘Tumbler.’ This year, I’m also trying ‘Solid Gold,’ a yellow grape tomato.

Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers shouldn’t be planted outdoors until late May or early June. Since they are heat-lovers, I always pin down a layer of red plastic mulch – often referred to as “tomato mulch” – on top of the soil in their beds.

I’ve used it for years and have found that it significantly increases the yield from each plant. I cut an “x” into the plastic through which I plant each seedling.

Tomato plants need some type of sturdy support to keep them from sprawling on the ground.

For years, I’ve used heavy-duty cages made from 47-inch-tall field fence. Last year, however, I planted several tomatoes on either side of a 4- by 8-foot sheet of concrete-reinforcing wire that I supported with metal fence posts. As the plants grew, I strung twine along the wire to hold them up.

This method allowed me to grow more plants in a raised bed and they grew beautifully.

When it comes to growing peppers, I’m a bit of a wimp so I don’t grow any of the really hot ones.

This year’s lineup includes ‘Jewel-Toned Bell Peppers,’ ‘Canary Bell’ and an Italian variety from Franchi Sementi Seeds (www.growitalian.com) called ‘Corno Giallo.’

For those of you who are more adventurous, ‘Early Jalapeno,’ ‘Anaheim Chili,’ ‘Habanero Mix’ and ‘Serrano’ are some possible varieties. Most pepper plants reach maturity in 70 to 80 days.

If you enjoy eggplants, consider planting some Italian or Japanese varieties. They are easy to grow. The plants are a bit stocky but the nice surprise is that they have unusual purple blossoms that the eggplants develop from.

Renee’s Garden (reneesgarden.com) offers seed combinations like ‘Italian Trio’ and ‘Asian Trio’ which gives you the opportunity to try three different varieties from a single packet.

Eggplants and pepper plants can become top-heavy as their fruits develop so it’s a good idea to provide some type of support for them.

Last year, I suspended a sheet of concrete-reinforcing wire on top of several foot-tall garden stakes about 8 inches above the soil surface. The plants grew up through the wire and it gave them the support they needed.

Tomato plants can sometimes be attacked by the tomato hornworm, a rather frightening large green caterpillar. Just hand-pick them and dispose of them. Peppers and eggplants tend to be pest-free.

One other warm-season crop that is worth the space in the garden is basil.

It will languish in cool weather so wait until Memorial Day weekend before planting it. I plant the seeds directly into the garden in large blocks.

I use the leaves to make fresh pesto, some of which I freeze into cubes to be used in cooking during the fall and winter.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at inthegarden@live.com.

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