The Tomato Zone

by Marty Ross

Every gardener wants to live in the Tomato Zone — and every garden has one.

The Tomato Zone
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Sweet cherry tomatoes, luscious red slicing tomatoes, pretty egg-shaped Romas, and juicy heirloom tomatoes are summer's top crop, and they are also one of the easiest to grow. They produce their abundant harvests in hot weather, which makes July and August the prime months for tomatoes in most of the country. If you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 5, 6, 7, or 8, you should be eating garden-fresh tomatoes soon.

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No matter where you live, the Tomato Zone is a sunny spot.

  • Tomatoes need a good eight hours of sun a day.
  • They should be planted in well-drained soil enriched with organic matter (like compost).
  • Turn a few shovels full of compost from your own compost pile (or a bag of compost from a garden shop) into the soil before planting. Compost is an excellent source of nutrients for tomato plants. It also makes great mulch around the base of plants, helps the soil retain moisture, and keeps weeds under control.
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  • Tomatoes thrive in shirtsleeve weather: the ideal temperature range for tomatoes is between 70 and 85 degrees. In this range, tomato plants grow vigorously, bloom freely, and set lots of fruit. When nighttime temperatures drop into the 60s or daytime highs are above 85, tomatoes still bloom, but they will stop setting fruit.
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There are steps gardeners can take to position themselves — and their tomatoes — in the heart of the Zone.

  • Tomatoes are easiest to care for and harvest when they are grown in sturdy tomato cages to support the plants. Stakes and string — a system known as the Florida weave — will also support a row of tomatoes in a bed. Staking or caging tomatoes gets the plants up into the sunlight, increases air circulation around plants, and protects them from soil-borne diseases that can splash up onto the leaves when it rains.
  • Rainfall in the Tomato Zone should be about an inch a week. If it doesn't rain, give plants a good watering. Remember, deep watering is better than a daily splash.
  • Fertilize plants with an organic fertilizer once or twice during the season, following the directions on the package. Do not over-fertilize — if you do, you will have a vigorous plant, but few tomatoes.
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When you're picking tomatoes from your own plants every day, eating them with every meal, and sharing them with friends and neighbors, you're in the heart of the Tomato Zone. You can't miss it.