How to Grow Beefsteak Tomatoescomments (14) February 5th, 2009
I know the image they were thinking of when they coined the term beefsteak tomato: big, thick, juicy slices the size and color of a steak. These are the attributes that make for a perfect BLT, the ultimate way to enjoy tomatoes. Of course, here in the South, making BLTs is also the forum for an argument over whether Duke's or Hellmann's mayonnaise is the best. This debate is often enough to start the tomatoes flying before we even get to the cutting board. There's always full agreement, however, on using flavorful beefsteak tomatoes.
|Once you've grown your tomatoes, make Susan Belsinger's version of summer's ultimate food.|
Varieties with great flavor
As with the mayonnaise debate, I am somewhat hesitant to lay my neck on the line and recommend tomato varieties, but I will tell you which ones have performed well for us. For many years, ‘Celebrity' was the standard by which we judged all other red slicing tomatoes. It produces well and is disease resistant. Its flavor is a well-balanced combination of acidic and sweet properties.
While I would still recommend it as good tomato, I feel that the flavor is not as good as it used to be. This sometimes happens with hybrids; seed stock can get diluted over time.
|'Burpee Early Pick' is a medium-size beefsteak tomato with good flavor. As its name suggests, it is best planted in early spring and can be harvested in 60 days.|
|'Big Beef' is a good producer, has some disease resistance, and tastes great.
‘Park's Whopper Improved' and ‘Red Sun' are hybrids that have done well for other farmers around here but haven't impressed us yet. ‘Red Sun' is supposed to have equal or better flavor than ‘Celebrity' and not be as susceptible to cracking. Still not satisfied, we have begun to try some of the many heirloom varieties now available. While usually not as disease resistant or productive as the hybrids, they offer the promise of great flavor.
The variety you grow is important for flavor, but how you grow your tomatoes will determine if you have loads of beautiful fruits or a few small fruits on weak plants. The methods we use are the keys to our success and may work for you too.
Amend soil in the fall
We start in the fall by choosing a site that hasn't had tomatoes (or peppers, eggplant, or potatoes) on it for at least three years. Rotating these crops helps control soil-borne diseases. We do a soil test to make sure the pH and potassium (K) levels are where they should be. Tomatoes prefer a pH between 6.5 and 7.0, a little higher than for most other vegetables. Additionally, they need at least as much potassium as nitrogen to spur good fruit development.
If my soil test reveals that everything is reasonably balanced and all that we need to do is boost the pH and potassium levels up to tomato standards, we simply add wood ashes. Not only do they have almost the same lime equivalent (85 percent) as garden lime, but they are also about 5 percent potassium. For a normal soil, I will add 10 to 15 pounds to a 300-square-foot bed. Fall is the best time to add lime and potassium to the garden because it gives the nutrients time to spread into the topsoil. We then sow a cover crop of crimson clover and wheat and put the patch to bed for the winter.
Prepare soil and install irrigation in early spring
In the spring, we mow the cover crop and turn it under three to four weeks before our intended planting date. Just before planting, we again till shallowly to kill any germinated weeds and to incorporate any nitrogen we need. Tomatoes need about 1-3⁄4 pounds of actual nitrogen per 500 square feet. If the cover crop grew well over the winter, I estimate that the soil will get about two-thirds of that nitrogen from its decomposition, and I will add the rest.
I prefer soybean meal as a source of nitrogen. It is readily available at farm supply stores and slow to medium in its nutrient release; I usually add 2 ounces of soybean meal per plant if the cover crop grew well. Be careful when applying nitrogen: Too much will make tomatoes grow lots of foliage, which can delay fruit set and make the plant more susceptible to foliar diseases. If you didn't get your lime and potassium on in the fall, you can add wood ashes in the spring as well, because they are more quickly available than most lime or potassium sources.
We then install a drip irrigation line down the middle of the bed and cover the bed with black, woven landscape fabric, pinning the edges down securely. We make 4-inch holes in the fabric for planting. We prefer landscape fabric to black plastic because we get all the benefits of plastic, like smothering weeds and warming soil, but it's reusable. And, because it's permeable, water doesn't puddle on top and become a catalyst for disease.
We mulch the paths with clean straw, then put up the trellis, as it's easier to do before the plants are in. Our trellis is a simple 5-foot wire fence. If you use cages to support your tomatoes, you can plant first, then install the cages.
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