Tomatoes are right up there with corn and wheat in the typical American diet. Ketchup, that big slice of tomato on your burger, salsa, and many other dishes use tomatoes for flavoring and nutrition. As such, they make a great addition to the survival garden since they produce prolifically, provide lots of important nutrients, and give you that taste of the “normal world” during a time of upheaval and disaster. Let’s look at what you can do with tomatoes and how you can grow them.
First off, the weaknesses of the tomato
Before you rush off to plant a row of tomatoes, let’s make sure you understand the problems associated with them:
- Need for sun and heat. Although there are varieties that have grown just about anywhere besides the Poles (even Siberia and Alaska!) your average tomato is going to grow only if you have a goodly amount of heat to keep them going. If you live in an area with a short growing season tomatoes may not be as prolific and useful to you.
- Short and limited fruit production or massively tall with tons of fruit. Vining tomatoes can and will grow some 10 feet tall and be covered in tomatoes for most of the summer which requires supporting structures and the like to keep them productive. Dwarf or “bush” tomato plants are much smaller in size which makes them easier to manage, but tend to produce smaller amounts of tomatoes for a limited time.
- The fruit itself doesn’t last long without processing. Unless you can them, turn them into salsa/ketchup or otherwise preserve them tomatoes are only going to last a week or so (less with wounds in the skin or hot, humid weather) which makes them a little more work intensive if you need to keep them for a winter store.
If you can accept these weaknesses, however, you will have a very productive plant that can keep you well fed for quite a while particularly if you put most of your crop into long lasting sauces and ketchup.
Generally speaking tomatoes can be rather forgiving, though poor soil or a lack of sun can definitely hurt the plants and severely reduce yearly production. Generally speaking, space tomato plants about 2-3 feet apart (3 feet for vining, 2 feet for bush or dwarf types) in soil with good drainage that has a soil PH between 6.2-6.8. They should receive full sun unless your temperatures regularly exceed 90 degrees in summer, in which case you may want to have some shade during the hottest part of the day to ensure that the plants keep setting fruit.
If you have cold weather tomatoes (often heirloom varieties hailing from Russia or from mountainous areas of the U.S.) plant them as soon as possible after the last frost has past, while less cold-tolerant tomatoes should wait until you regularly have temps in the mid 50′s. Make sure that the plants are kept evenly watered, particularly as young sprouts but also when fruit is still growing. This strengthens the plants when young, and helps prevent fruit cracking.
Common diseases and problems
- Purple veins or leaves in the plant. This indicates a lack of phosphorous, but this can occur even if the soil itself has plenty of phosphorous available. You see, cold and lack of water both inhibit a tomato plant’s ability to transport phosphorous through the plant, which means that many young tomato plants commonly have purple leaves if a particularly cold evening blows in.
- Blossom End Rot. Showing itself as a small “wet” looking patch on growing green tomatoes, eventually this rot will cause a vast, rotting, black patch to spread across the tomato and ruin it completely. Not only does this deny you part of a lifesaving crop during an emergency, the rotting scent also attracts many pests which may cause damage to other healthy fruit nearby. It is caused purely by a lack of calcium getting to the fruit, though the reasons for this vary. Drought, over-watering, inconsistent moisture, over-abundance of nitrogen, and a simple lack of calcium in the soil can all result in this very common condition.
- Leafless plants and gaping holes eaten in tomatoes. This is often the result of the voracious Tomato Hornworm, which is a particularly large and very well-camouflaged caterpillar that consumes everything but the stems of tomato plants. A single Hornworm can easily devour many tomatoes and devastate a single plant within a day, and unfortunately you rarely only get one. Aside from picking them off yourself (they make great feed for chickens owing to their bulk and soft flesh) you can also permit the braconid wasps to eliminate this threat for you. These tiny wasps paralyze and then lay eggs on hornworms, who are steadily eaten by the hungry larvae within. Simply leave any caterpillars with eggs on them alone and allow the wasp population to grow in order to combat the hornworm population.
Using the fruits
Obviously you can eat them directly, and for many a tomato is as good as an apple particularly when it is still warmed from the sun. However, slicing and popping a few in your mouth won’t put much of a dent in your supply if you plant even a few tomato plants owing to their sheer productivity so you should take an effort to preserve them. Dishes like ketchup, tomato/spaghetti sauce, tomato soup, and salsa were all invented in order to preserve the crop of tomatoes and other summer vegetables and you should follow this example in preserving your own. You’ll have to find some recipes you like since the exact balance of ingredients for just about anything, including ketchup, depends on the person who makes it.
Tomatoes are a great, simple, easy to grow plant that produces lots of nutritious and helpful fruit. They have their place in every survival garden, and I encourage you to give them a try!
What uses do you have for tomatoes? Do you have any tips for growing them? Let us know in the comments below!