Finally, the time has come to plant tomatoes.
I started my first garden in a house that I owned 30 years ago in Cold Spring, a small river town on the Hudson River near New York City.
My 80-year-old neighbor was a tomato expert. One day he sauntered into my front yard, admiring the purple petunias on my front porch.
“Howdy ma’am. I’m your neighbor, name’s Johnny. I noticed your pretty flowers, but you know you can’t eat those pretty posies. C’mon over to my back yard and I’ll show you how to grow tomatoes.”
I looked on with awe at four perfect rows of green tomato plants bursting with red giant tomatoes.
“These here seeds came all the way from Italy. There ain’t nothin’ like ‘em here.” He proudly displayed a brown paper bag, filled with tiny brown seeds. “They’re called San Marzano. I take the seeds and then grow ‘em till they’re tall enough to put in the ground. Now, I’m gonna give you two plants and show you how to grow ‘em.”
Johnny tutored me that summer on the ins and outs of becoming a successful vegetable gardener. Little did I know that 30 years later, I would be researching the very seeds that Johnny had imported from Italy.
WHICH TOMATO TO CHOOSE
The variety of tomatoes to choose from is as wide and complex as a good seed catalogue can offer you.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed is my go-to for all seeds rare and unusual. Most were propagated from seed collections dating back to the 1900s. Their seed catalogue reads like a botanical textbook, filled with historical information and planting directions, and is free from rareseeds.com.
My favorite “Tomato Tale,” from the catalogue, is about the origin of the “Mortgage LIfter,” which was developed by M.C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia. His tomatoes, bearing a 1-pound fruit, were sold for $1 each and paid off the $6,000 mortgage on his house!
The process of starting your own seeds might seem arduous, but you will be able to try something new and have seedlings to share with friends. It’s not too late to start seedlings, just read the seed packet for instructions.
Local nurseries that carry unusual heirloom seedlings, which are ready to plant, include Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas, Green Thumb Nursery in San Marcos, Evergreen Nursery in Oceanside and Pearson’s Gardens & Herb Farm in Vista.
ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS
According to Katherine Whiteside, author of “The Way We Garden Now,” the two most important things in growing superior tomatoes are sun and heat. Unless the nighttime temperature remains above 45 degrees, your plants will suffer and not produce the juicy tomatoes you want. You will also need at least eight hours of sun for best production. Purchase small plants and avoid the temptation to buy those that have already bloomed.”
The reason you don’t want overly developed tomatoes, is that many greenhouse tomatoes grown in early spring will produce early buds, which in turn produce early tomatoes that fall off the vine.
DETERMINATE OR INDETERMINATE?
These classifications are as complicated as any botanical text, so I will try to simplify. Extensive lists of specific varieties can be found online at mastergardenersd.org.
Determinate: Basically, these are the varieties with fruit that ripens all at once, over a two- to three-week period, and die when done. The most popular varieties include Roma, Rutgers, Grape and San Marzano.
They grow 4-5 feet tall, and will need a cage. Determinate varieties are useful for making sauces and salsa.
Indeterminate: Indeterminate plants have a vine-like structure, and can sprawl up to 10 feet. They produce continuously until frost, and in North County can continue growing for two seasons. Varieties include: Cherry, Better Boy, Early Girl, Sungold, Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter, to name a few. Be sure to stake the main stem, and allow to sprawl from there.
HOW TO PLANT (Adapted from “The Way We Garden Now”)
- Be certain that your site is well prepared, weed-free and situated in the area of your yard or patio that receives at least eight hours of full sun.
- Prepare plants by removing first set of leaves, blossoms and any small fruit.
- Dig a deep hole so that you can bury the exposed stem, allowing the roots to grow sideways. Add a scoop of compost to hole.
- Place tomato cage around the determinate plant. If you have chosen an indeterminate variety it can be staked, pruned and allowed to roam in the garden. (Check mastergardenersd.org for pruning instructions).
- If possible, water plants at base, not overhead. Fertilize sparingly, and stop once fruit appears.
- Do not pick tomatoes until fully ripe and the fruit feels heavy.
Enjoy your spring planting, and don’t be afraid to try something a little different. Many seed catalogue sites have enjoyable videos, which can help answer any questions you might have.
Jano Nightingale is a Master Gardener and former Director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program in Cooperstown, New York. She teaches gardening classes in North County, including the Carlsbad Senior Center Program. For questions and upcoming classes, contact her at [email protected].