starting a garden

The Low Down on Selecting Tomatoes

heirloom tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes grown by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Photo: Noah Cudd

Vegetable gardening is very popular these days, and even more so since the COVID outbreak.    Anyone new to this hobby is quick to hear some terms being thrown around when describing different types of vegetables. Knowing the meaning of these terms gives prospective gardeners some key information that helps them pick varieties of vegetables most suited to their needs. All living creatures, known to man, are classified according to species and genus. So for instance, all tomatoes are classified as Solanum lycospersicum.

To start off, I already used the term “variety”. This term is used rather loosely in horticulture and is incorrectly interchanged with “cultivar”. Both refer to the differences in the species of plant you have chosen. Varieties refer to naturally occurring deviations from the original species. They typically come true to seed. Cultivars have been purposely cross-bred from two or more different species. Plants must be either vegetatively propagated or started from hybrid seed each year. These varieties or cultivars have names and are associated with specific characteristics.  For example when I say “Sweet Millions” tomatoes, a person familiar with this cultivar knows that they are cherry tomatoes, indeterminate, very flavorful, and highly productive. For the sake of this article, I will stick with tomato examples, but these terms could apply to many vegetable species and cultivars.

Our tomato plants contain both male and female flower parts. Because of this, they are easily pollinated by wind or bees. This is problematic for greenhouse tomato growers, so they will hand pollinate the tomatoes with paint brushes or even special electronic devices that shake the flower to accomplish pollination. Fortunately for us outdoor gardeners, we do not need to do anything special for pollination to occur. 

Probably the best place to start is talking about “open pollination.” This is essentially how Mother Nature does things. There is a large population of organisms that have genes for individual traits, or characteristics. If we stick with our tomato example, think of: size, color, growth habit, disease resistance, plant height, etc. In my example, the population of tomatoes living in the wild in a certain area would have a lot of genetic diversity. As we all have experienced, the weather can vary from year to year. Genetic diversity in the population is nature’s way of ensuring that some organisms will survive and reproduce. Likewise, different parts of the country (or the world) will have different weather, climates, and microclimates.  Certain traits or characteristics are an advantage or a disadvantage depending on where you are living.  Over time, a population of tomatoes will see an increase in the genes that help it survive in the local environments. These would be considered different varieties of tomatoes.   

Some growers like to have open pollinated plants. They see which tomatoes produce the best and then save seeds from those plants to be planted the following year. In this way, the gardener is essentially developing a variety of tomato that is perfectly suited to living, growing, and even thriving in that particular area of the world. In addition, the gardener may also select for certain traits he or she prefers, like low acid, yellow tomatoes for example. Over time, the gardener may select and replant only the seeds of the plants that conform to certain pre-determined criteria.  Eventually the plants will breed true, or have the same set of characteristics, year to year.

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Common Garden Mistakes

vegetable sprouting out of soil with words common garden problems written on the photoMistakes are a great learning tool, but they also can dampen any enthusiasm for a new project. When early mistakes compound problems further down the road, they can turn someone away from a pastime that offers great satisfaction, healthy activities and a renewed appreciation of the natural world around us.

So, if you are just starting on the gardening odyssey, let’s look at how to avoid a few common mistakes. Avoiding these trouble spots will make gardening easier, much more productive – and fun!

There are three main components to consider when starting out: sun, soil and water. In simpler terms, location, location, location. If you provide your garden the right combination of these three items, you sidestep many problems that can occur as the growing season progresses. These concepts apply to both vegetable and ornamental gardening, and to any specific type of plant you want to grow.

Let’s start with sun. Different plants have different light needs. Plants are categorized as sun, part sun/part shade and shade – but what do those labels mean? Here’s the breakdown. Full sun means at least six to eight hours of full sunlight a day and you start calculating that after 10 AM. Early morning sunlight isn’t considered strong enough to be included in your calculations.

Part sun/part shade is four to six hours of sun daily and anything less than four is considered shady. Make these calculations after the trees have leafed out in the spring; the sunlight in your yard shifts from winter to summer.

Your soil is the foundation of your garden, both literally and figuratively. It provides support, nutrients and water to your plants. Just like humans, different types of plants have different preferences in nutrition and water. Find out what you can provide and choose plants that will thrive in those conditions. First and foremost, if the site is new to you, or it’s been at least five years since the last one, get a soil test. Find out what you do – and don’t – need to add to your soil. Soil tests are available from the UConn soil lab at http://www.soiltest.uconn.edu/sampling.php

You can amend your soil with additional nutrients and elements, but it’s difficult to significantly change water-holding capacity. The test will help you determine how well your soil holds or drains water, allowing you to choose plants that are happiest in those conditions. Observation will also tell you a lot: how quickly does an area drain after a rainstorm? Is it wet is spring, but dry in the summer? Is it always damp?

A related issue is access to water. While an established plant in the right location may not need any supplemental water, both vegetable gardens and newly planted ornamentals will. Is it easy to get water to this area? Do you need to develop a water storage system, such as rain or water barrels? Or is another location really a better overall choice?

Once you know the characteristics of your space, you can then choose plants that will do well in that location without a great deal of extra work. The old phrase ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ is a valid one. Don’t try to significantly alter the location for a favorite plant that really isn’t right for the spot. It will only lead to frustration and poor results. Instead, find plants that like your location and choose from those. Let your gardening provide a positive experience!

For answers to your gardening questions, go to https://mastergardener.uconn.edu/ask-us-a-question/  . We’ll be happy to help!

Article by Sarah Bailey, UConn Extension State Master Gardener Coordinator