Green Thumb – Tomato Trials & Tribulations

Posted: June 13, 2019

I like to grow different tomato varieties, but I also like to find the top of my kitchen counter at harvest time. That is why I usually grow just four plants. Last summer I had 17. 

Some of them were candidates for the compost pile, like the four-pack of desiccated ‘Jet Star’. When I finished planting, parts of my garden looked like a tomato rehab hospital. But how could I pass up seven varieties of free tomatoes I had never tasted before?  Besides, I thought the weak plants wouldn’t make it out of intensive care.

Wrong. All it took were a couple of good rains and off they went. If you set a tomato plant deeper into the ground it will root along the stem. I gave them a boost with transplant starter solution.

Viva Italia

Right after planting, I put down a layer of newspaper sheets topped with shredded leaves. Straw or grass clippings also work well. A mulch will delay soil-borne diseases from splashing onto the leaves. Tomatoes do best when staked or grown in cages. Change your planting location on a three-year rotation, if possible.

Tomatoes are sensitive to temperature. They set fruit when the nights are between 55 and 75, and can lose their blossoms below 55 degrees. Cover them below 50 degrees. Above 90 they will stop growing. High temperatures during ripening will trigger hard white tissue under the tomato skin.

Raccoons, squirrels and chipmunks love ripe fruit. I keep the vandals out with a chicken wire fence covered with mesh netting over the top edge.

The labels on my plants indicated 58 to 100 days to maturity. This predicts how many days to first harvest from the time the plants are set into the soil. Even if it’s not accurate, it helps to know what will ripen sooner when comparing varieties. In general, large fruit and heirlooms take longer to mature.

My plants were both “determinate” and “indeterminate.” Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain size and produce fruit all at once. Indeterminate tomatoes grow and set fruit all season long.

Very Cherry

It’s important to water tomato plants regularly during dry periods. Moisture fluctuations limit a plant’s ability to absorb calcium and can lead to blossom-end rot.

Extension recommends harvesting tomatoes while they are still firm with full color. The sugars become starchy and the sweetness declines on hot days, so finish the ripening indoors in the seventy degree range. Don’t put them on a sunny windowsill. If the temperature inside is as warm as outside, let the tomatoes ripen on the vine.

Here are the results of the varieties I tried for the first time:

‘Jet Star’ was amazing. My transplants quickly recovered and surprised me with the first ripe tomato. The medium size fruit was flawless, good, and meaty.

‘Very Cherry’ grew tall. I counted 22 cherry tomatoes on one branch. The sweet fruit was an unusual, dark wine color.

The heirloom ‘Abraham Lincoln’ was an excellent producer. The tomatoes were large, flawless, meaty, a beautiful dark red and very delicious.

Big Boy

One of the best for flavor and appearance was a mystery tomato, started from seed at a local school. Angela, your “Sweet Tomato” was a winner.

Both of the plum tomato varieties ‘San Marzano’ and ‘Viva Italia’ had hollow fruit, a condition known as “puffiness.” It’s caused by improper pollination which occurs when temperatures are above 90 or below 55 degrees, if there’s too much rain, or too much nitrogen. One plant of ‘Viva Italia’ produced 31 plum tomatoes, minus the one the tomato worm got. It was the first to get a serious case of soil-borne leaf disease.

‘Riesentraube’, a German heirloom, had prolific clusters of fruit and produced a sweet, very delicious cherry tomato.

Do I have a favorite?  I love the flavor of the heirloom ‘Brandywine.’  Otherwise, you just can’t beat the taste of a home-grown tomato. Now, there’s a pleasant thought.

Janice M. Weber – University of Illinois Extension, DeKalb County Master Gardener



Submit your questions to or call the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Help Desk at 815-758-8194. The Desk is open for questions now to mid-October from 9 a.m. – Noon.