The View from Mudsock Heights: I Thought I Knew About Tomato Growing, But I Was Wrong

By Dennis Powell | Posted at 9:01 PM

This year I may have to can some tomatoes. The “putting up” of vegetables was an annual ritual when I was a child, and as a grownup I’ve threatened to do it from time to time, but this year it might just happen.

Which is to say that through no particular effort or talent on my part, it looks to be a tremendous tomato season around here. This puts it in vast contrast to last year’s tomato bust, when weeds overtook the garden and no amount of violence against them seemed to have the slightest effect.

One thing that has helped this season is a product called Preen. This can probably be best described as birth control for plants. It is supposed to keep seeds from germinating, and if this year’s experience is any example, it works.

I tilled the stuff into the soil early in the year, and a little more again a week or so before planting the tomatoes and peppers. There have been virtually no weeds this year; the only ones the bothered to show up are a few sprigs of grass that grow from rhizomes. Because they didn’t require seeds, Preen had no effect on them. But they are easily spotted and pulled.

This wonder product is of limited use to more traditional gardeners, of course. A lot of common garden crops are grown from seed. But I don’t grow corn or beans or beets.

This year I’m growing habanero peppers alongside the tomatoes. If you’ve ever bitten into a habanero you’ll join me in thinking it’s not something you’ll do twice. I love very spicy food, but these little monsters are well outside my comfort level.

Over the last few years I’ve grown increasingly hot peppers both for kitchen use and for employment as critter repellent. This year’s crop, though, is for use solely in the latter role. I’ll let them get good and ripe, then dry and grind them the way one might any other chile pepper. Then I’ll sprinkle a little of the highly potent powder in locations frequented by unwanted animals. A snootful of the stuff quickly causes creatures to conclude they’d rather be somewhere else. Next year, I’ll make a buffer zone of the ground habaneros around the garden, too. (I can do this because I have no children and am rarely visited by them. Make no mistake: this is powerful stuff, and only a little of it can produce severe pain. Its active ingredient is the same thing that is used in chemical pepper spray, so it should be used with caution. Also, it should be sprinkled around only on days when it’s not very breezy — if you get downwind of it, it’s an experience you’ll remember.)

But enough unpleasantness. I can’t believe how well the tomatoes are growing.

As usual, I started out with modest intentions, maybe a half-dozen plants. But then I saw all the varieties available, and thought that it wouldn’t hurt to grow one or two of this type, and that one, and oh, look, this seems interesting, and before I knew it I had 18 plants in the cart.

Having grown or tried to grow tomatoes every year I’ve had a patch of ground or a great big pot that got good sun, I thought I was fairly familiar with them. So I was surprised this year to learn I’d missed a significant distinction among kinds of tomatoes.

It turns out — and if you already know this, please stifle your laughter — that it’s important to know whether a tomato is “determinate” or “indeterminate.” This has a couple of meanings, the chief being that a determinate tomato plant produces its fruit all at once, while an indeterminate one produces tomatoes continuously until the first freeze kills it off. (A secondary meaning is that indeterminate tomatoes require a little more attention, because unless they’re pinched back just so, they’ll grow like crazy and quickly become uncontrollable. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting lots of tomatoes if half of them are rotting because the vine is on the ground!)

People who want to preserve tomatoes tend to prefer the determinate varieties, because they all get ripe at once and the canning process can be done in one or two big batches instead of a zillion little batches.

How this important fact escaped me despite my advanced years, I do not know. It’s a deep personal embarrassment to me.

It was not until after I had purchased and planted my tomatoes that I learned of the distinction, which I happened upon while reading late at night. Immediately, I was out in the garden with the flashlight, looking at the tags that came with the plants and discovering that mine are about half and half. So if all goes well, I’ll have a big bunch of them to can for the winter, as well as oodles to eat every day through the second half of the summer and the autumn.

I’m already in a good mood in anticipation. Which was made all the better this Wednesday, when I picked the first three ripe ones.

They were delicious.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at

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