Metro-East Living

A little tomato advice for spring

Rutgers is a trusted standby tomato variety.
Rutgers is a trusted standby tomato variety.

Q: I have received a lot of seed catalogs for vegetables. There are so many varieties of tomatoes that I do not know where to begin. I need advice as I want to have eating tomatoes as well as larger tomatoes. When should I plant the seeds for spring?

H. D. of Cahokia

A: I break the group of tomatoes into different groups: the small tomato producers, the All-American winners, the heirlooms, and the old standbys.

The small tomato producers (cherry and grape tomatoes) will produce very quickly and usually produce all growing season. These little ones consist of the varieties of Gardener’s Delight, Juliet, Small Fry, Super Sweet and Sweet Million. This type of tomato can be planted in either the garden or in containers requiring very little space. There are also yellow varieties, which lack the acidity.

The All-American selections include winners that have been tested in trial gardens in all 50 states and a few Canadian provinces. They have to score in the highest rating at every trial site to receive this award. Naturally, this award raises the price for seeds of these plants. Varieties of tomatoes in this category include Floramerica, Celebrity, Big Beef, Sugary and a new winner for this year, Candyland Red.

The heirlooms are tomatoes that have been grown for many years by many gardeners. They remain true as they are grown in separate locations so that no cross-pollination happens. The group mainly consists of Amish Paste, Beefsteak, Bloody Butcher, Brandywine, Brandywine Pink, Mortgage Lifter, Oxheart and Roma.

The standbys include Rutgers (which was produced by Rutgers University) and Big Boy which have been standards for many many years. These have produced great tomatoes for many years in all types of weather conditions, from too dry to too wet.

If you are going to buy seeds, you can store them for several years (usually up to three or four years) but you have to place the seeds in a jar with a tightened lid and keep them in a refrigerator.

You can select one variety or one variety from each group of the above four categories to keep track of production as well as what problems you have encountered. Also, keep weather records with a rain gauge in your garden and the high and low air temperatures for each day.

Our average last frost in spring is April 20. Plant your tomato seeds inside about three weeks before this date. Do not keep them too warm, and add light. Insufficient light and too-warm inside temperatures will cause the plants to grow tall and spindly. Also, don’t rush to plant the tomatoes outside earlier because they are a warm-season crop. If you are tempted to try to rush the season, be prepared to give your plants some protection with polyester material or old blankets held up by stakes. DO NOT USE PLASTIC because it magnifies the temperature when the morning sun appears.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to

Do it now

  • LOOK AROUND: Take an inventory of your area to spot any broken branches, animal damage to your plants, any bare areas in the lawn areas and mole damage as the winter so far has been fairly warm.
  • INSECT EGGS: Check for insect egg cases on woody branches. You can scrap them off before any damage is done.