Every food gardener’s dream is surely the tomato: red, juicy, and perfectly adapted to our humid, hot, Manhattan summers. Here are my six tips from a lifetime of tomato gardening in the city:
1. Don’t be embarrassed to get a big starter plant. You are not less of a gardener if you did not start your tomatoes from seeds back in January. Spring of 2016 was colder than normal, and it’s only now that local garden outlets are setting out plants. Go for the quart-size or gallon-size containers you can find at our local Lowe’s (2008 Broadway at 68th Street).
Another good source is Stoke’s Farm, a family farm that sells a variety of garden plants at their various locations in weekly Farmer’s Markets around the city, including Union Square (Wednesdays and Fridays) and Tucker Square (Columbus Avenue at 65th Street, Thursdays and Saturdays).
2. Choose varieties wisely. Read the labels on those potted plants. “Tumbler” is a fun new variety meant to be used for hanging baskets. If you’re looking for a good cherry type, try “Sweet Million” or “Yellow Pear.” “Rutgers,” ‘Big Boy” and “Better Boy” are reliable beefsteak tomatoes for flavor and vigor. Steer away from “Ace,” “Celebrity” and the dwarf “Patio” as these tend to make early, but tasteless fruits.
3. Feed and water well. Lay on some mild composted manure or a balanced fertilizer when you transplant, and every two weeks thereafter. Additional calcium, in the form of 0-10-10 fertilizer or bone meal, will prevent those black spots on the fruit. Water deeply: tomatoes are native to tropic America, and they like it moist.
4. Getting lots of flowers but no fruits? Bumblebees are the usual pollinator for tomatoes. If you haven’t seen any around, take an old toothbrush (or an old electric toothbrush) and gently rub all the flowers on your plant.
5. Get your first harvest in a hurry by tying up a Granny Smith apple to your tomato stakes. The apple releases ethylene, a hormone gas that encourages ripening.
6. Don’t forget companion plants. If there were such a thing as a mozzarella plant I would grow it. But even if you are growing in containers, you can stick in oregano, scallions (from onion sets) with perhaps marigolds and basil nearby.
These cheerful additions will encourage you to visit your tomato plant daily. That is really the secret to good tomatoes -- your attention. Pick off brown leaves or insects, keep the earth moist and the vines tied off the ground, and enjoy the process, which is part of the fun and reward of growing your own food.