Tomatoes are a summer staple at farm stands throughout the Lehigh Valley region, many grown by experts who grow wide varieties of heirloom and hybrid plants, each with their own distinct flavor profile, and have the patience and observation skills it takes to grow a healthy crop.
For tomato lovers, the first harvest of July cannot come fast enough.
Steve Ganser of Eagle Point Farm Market and Greenhouses in Trexlertown offers important suggestions for growing and purchasing tomatoes.
Home gardeners and commercial growers often grapple with late blight, a devastating fungus that infects leaves, stems, and fruits of the tomato plant. Signs of late blight include brown, curling leaves, as if the plant was hit by frost, and powdery white fungus.
“For the home gardener, late blight will destroy their plants,” Ganser says. “For a commercial grower, it can destroy an entire crop and spread like wildfire across a region, as it did quite a few years back along the entire East Coast.”
To combat late blight, he recommends giving plants a lot of room—“do not overcrowd. Tomato plants need good air circulations,” Ganser says. “Don’t water at night leaving the leaves wet overnight. Rotate where you grow, if possible, yearly.”
Gardeners also battle early blight, which is seen more often than late blight. “You can research different fungicides, organic and nonorganic, to combat early blight and other diseases,” he notes.
Most growers agree that hot, dry summers provide the best condition for growing flavorful tomatoes. A wet year always brings challenges.
“In our area in the past two years, and perhaps this year, we have had an unprecedented amount of rain,” he adds. “This causes plenty of disease problems, especially fungus. The Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing and Research Program has been funding research on development of late-blight-resistant varieties, one being the grape tomato Valentine.
Blossom end rot is another problem he hears about from customers.
“When the tomato is maturing and the bottom of the fruit is brown and rotting, this is a calcium deficiency in the plant,” Ganser says. “This is usually a symptom of poor water management: too much water or not enough water. You will really see this in containers. The best solution if you experience this problem is to buy a calcium supplement and add the designated amount to each hole where you plant your tomatoes.”
Ganser suggests that gardeners have a soil test done to determine the best conditions for growing tomatoes.
“Customers always want to add to their soil but really have no idea what their soil actually needs,” he says. “You can get soil testing bags at Penn State Extension.”
Eagle Point customers who prefer not to tend tomato plants can visit the market and choose from a wide variety of hybrids and heirloom slicing, paste, and cherry tomatoes. The staff at Eagle Point tries to have tomatoes before July 4 and until Thanksgiving.
“There’s a misconception that a hybrid tomato is a genetically modified organism,” Ganser notes. “It is a disservice to plant breeding, and consumers miss out on really great varieties.”