How To Grow Your Own Tomatoes

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Tomatoes are off the menu at fast food restaurants like McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKC), Taco Bell, (YUM) Wal-Mart (WMT), after the Food and Drug Administration expanded its warning on June 9 against a rare form of Salmonella. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said there have been 167 reported cases caused by the rare bacteria –called Salmonella saintpaul—since mid-April and the most dangerous varieties are the red Roma, red plum, and round red tomatoes. Confirmed cases have been reported in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Luckily, the attack of the killer tomatoes looks to be limited to restaurants and supermarkets selling the raw tomatoes that have been affected. The source hasn’t been identified and home grown varieties should be just fine, since you are an isolated grower. So, head to your local garden store and start planting to enjoy 'Beefsteaks,' ‘Big Boys,’ and ‘Golden Girls’ all summer long.

It’s too late in the season for seeds, but the perfect time for a plant. “Tomato plants like heat, and if you plant when it’s warm they’ll grow happy and quickly,” says Hanna Rhoades, of ThisGardenisIllegal.com. “If you plant before it’s hot enough, they just sit in the ground and won’t do much.”

A hybrid plant will produce the most fruit, and is readily available at your local nursery. “Go to a garden center, not a Wal-Mart or Home Depot (HD) because that stuff has been sitting out and isn’t in the best health,” says William Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato, detailing his quest for the perfect garden.

When choosing a tomato plant, look for a hybrid that’s marked ‘VFN,’ which indicates the variety is resistant to three types of diseases: verticilum wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes. Buy a plant without flowers and plant it deep—up to the first set of leaves. Alexander recommends leaving the soil around the base a little below ground level to create an area for water to pool and keep the plants moist.

Add mulch to keep the roots cool, and in a couple of months you’ll have home grown tomatoes. “I like to use compost or concentrated kelp extract with the soil,” says Alexander. “You can even stick an old fish in the ground with it. Or put in some old fashioned miracle grow.” And don’t forget to stake the plants to keep the fruits off the ground.

If you’re looking for a more unusual tomato, then consider purchasing an heirloom, commonly defined as an open or naturally pollinated tomato whose seeds have been passed down through generations. “They don’t produce as much fruit, but are more interesting in terms of flavors and colors. “The tomato of my heart is the Brandywine,” says Alexander. Brandywines are just one of over 4,000 heirloom tomato varieties, and one of the slowest to mature. Rhoades even recommends eBay (EBAY) for rare tomato finds. “Make sure sellers have strong feedback to find a reputable tomato dealer,” she says. “I use TomatoGirl,who runs tomatobabycompany.com”

Growing tomatoes is easy, and a great way to impress guests at your next dinner party. Living in an urban area is no excuse to not take advantage of this warm weather fruit. Patio tomatoes—the name comes from the fact that they have a compact vine and can easily grow in smaller containers, suitable for, well, a patio—are also available. They simply grow a little shorter than traditional varieties—which can often exceed 10 feet tall.

Get going now and your plants should start bearing fruit around August 1 and will continue to produce until the first killing frost, which could be well into November.

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