There is no abatement in the interest that Tomatoes have commanded these past twenty years, and there is not likely to be. The crop has secured a position from which it cannot be dislodged. Its culture will extend, and the number of varieties will grow with steady persistency: that is a safe prophecy.
Naturally, when Tomato growing first began to become general, mistakes in culture were made. If there is a right way and a wrong way of doing a thing, trust human nature to stumble on the wrong one. But if the unthinking many go astray, there are always, happily, the observant few to ponder, to experiment, and finally to discover the road to success.
The general mistake made with Tomatoes was overmanuring. The plants were gorged with dung, and as a result they smothered themselves with foliage, bore little fruit, and were ready to embrace with open arms the first enemy that came along. We have changed all that. We banish the dung fork to the uttermost depths of the toolshed when we think about Tomatoes; and with a less pampered, less plethoric, plant we get health and fruitfulness. It is possible, of course, to carry the principle too far. I cannot think that the dry ash bed, which some speak of, gives the best crops. Indeed, the best which I have any knowledge of are grown in about 6 inches depth of sound turfy loam, enriched with a little burnt woody refuse.
The great thing with Tomatoes is a good start. I do not mean by this a very early one, unless the grower has the markets in view. Nor is it in the least degree necessary to push the plants along in a great deal of heat, especially if outdoor culture is the object. Experience teaches me that if the plants grow steadily during their early stages, it does not much matter if they move rather slowly, and that the plant which is only 8 or 9 inches high when it is put out is just as likely to give a crop as the 2-footer - if anything, rather more so.
It is wise to avoid sprinkling the seeds, and instead to put them in the soil one at a time, about 1 inch apart. This effectually prevents crowding, which is the great bane of Tomatoes. If plump and firm, nearly every one will germinate. Use a box, a pot, or a pan, and cover not more than % inch. A greenhouse shelf is a capital place for starting the seeds. I have, however, had a good crop from plants started in a cold frame; and an acquaintance, who loves to do things in ways of his own, and finds no pleasure whatever in anything that he has to do like other people, always insists on sowing his seeds under a south wall, in the open air, and covering them with upturned pickle bottles.
The seed vessels should be shaded until the plants come through, not afterwards. The thin seeding does away with the necessity for pricking off the plants early, and that in itself is a grand thing, because shifting Tomatoes before they have formed a pair of rough leaves is just the thing to throw them back. Each plant may be put into a 3-inch pot, and transferred from that to a 5-inch, in which it may remain till planting out time in June. I may, however, say that with a view to saving labour and pots, I have often pricked the plants straight away 4 inches apart into 4-inch deep boxes, and let them stay there till June. This plan does not give the biggest plants, but they are dwarf, stiff, and strong; directly they are put out they go ahead, and they invariably yield well.
Many a stretch of fence or wall with a south aspect that now goes bare every summer might be occupied profitably with Tomatoes, and if the plants are put out 18 inches apart, the shoots which start in the axils removed as fast as they form, and the leading growth pinched at the top of the support, there will be a crop. Or, of course, they may be grown in the open, each plant supported by a stout stake.
Defoliation is, I consider, carried to extremes by some growers. They cut off the leaves wholesale while the fruit is still only half swollen and quite green. This is scarcely wise. A certain amount of foliage is required, certainly on the upper part of the plant, and the wisest course is to thin it by degrees. Slice off half a leaf here, pick off one there, and so expose the fruit and relieve the plant without ever imparting a complete check.
Tomato history has moved fast, and the recruit of ten years ago is the veteran of to-day. The old Large Red was long the favourite sort, and, unless I am much astray, I can trace its features in many of the modern sorts. It, with Trophy, Hathaway's Excelsior, Hepper's Goliath and Acme, held sway twenty years ago. Then came Hackwood Park Prolific, Dedham Favourite, and Perfection; then Conference, Ham Green Favourite, Maincrop, Earliest of All, and Laxton's Open Air; then Challenger, Chemin Rouge, Duke of York, Early Ruby, Comet, Eclipse, Frogmore, Supreme, and all the rest of them. It is hard to say which is the best. For outdoor work Comet and Early Ruby are two of the best. For indoors Challenger, Duke of York, and Frogmore are very fine. Maincrop and Supreme do well indoors and out. Perfection is almost unbeatable for show purposes.
Fig. 85. How To Raise Tomatoes.
D, pot of seedlings, the seed in which have been placed 1 inch apart.
E, pot of seedlings sown 1/2 inch apart.
F, pot of seedlings from seed sown thickly and placed in a structure having a brisk heat and moist growing atmosphere, with very little ventilation, the plants being drawn and weakly, and not worth the trouble of potting.
G, sturdy seedling from thin sowing: s, radicle; t, fibrous roots formed at or near the surface of the soil; u, short, sturdy stem; v, seed leaves; w, second or rough leaves; x, growing point.
H, moderately stout, but rather long stemmed or leggy seedling: y, relatively indifferent roots and long stem; z, comparatively drawn top growth.
I, sturdy seedling properly potted into 3-inch pot: a, drainage; b, soil; c, space for water.
J, rather leggy seedling in 3-inch pot: d, drainage; e, soil; f, space for water.
Fig. 86. Repotting Tomatoes For Fruiting In Pots.
K, section of 6-inch pot with plant transferred from 3-inch pot: g, drainage; h, soil; i, space for water; j, roots and the ball of soil as turned out of the 3-inch pot.
L, part section of 8-inch pot with pair of plants shifted from 5-inch pot.
M, section of 12-inch pot: k, drainage; l, soil; m, space for water; n, ball of roots and soil of plant from 6-inch pot; o, laterals (which ought to be rubbed off whilst quite small); p, truss of flower and fruit; q, stake.
Fig. 87. Top-dressing Pot Tomatoes.
A, 10 or 12-inch pot with young Tomato planted: 1, sod of turf on which pots are stood; 2, soil, leaving space of about 4 inches for top-dressing; 3, young plant.
B, the plant at a later stage: 1, space left for topdressing filled up.
C, section of pot showing piece of zinc fixed round the inside of the rim to allow for further top-dressing: 1, top-dressing material.
D, another view of the pot, showing the piece of zinc fixed.
E, a different method, strips of turf placed round inside of pot above the rim to allow for top-dressing: 1, turf strips and soil.
The plan of giving young pot Tomatoes very little soil at first, and top-dressing as they grow, finds favour with many successful cultivators.