When I lived on the east coast, the first October killing frost marked the end of the tomato season. Soon the ground would be frozen and covered with snow; and the taste of those juicy, flavorful fruit would become just a memory. This also meant that we would have to wait about eight months for next year’s crop to savor their exquisite taste again.
Southern California is one of the few locations in the U. S. where there are two times of the year to plant tomatoes. The primary planting time is in late winter through mid-spring. This planting allows us to harvest tomatoes, usually beginning sometime in May and, with any luck, will carry us through late summer or early autumn. But we also have another time of year to plant a second crop; one that will extend the tomato season by producing fruit during the cool season beginning in late September and, if the fall is reasonably warm, will continue to bear into the winter months. I won’t lie to you. With a few exceptions, the flavor and juiciness of cool season tomatoes just can’t match that of summer tomatoes. The shorter days, less intense sun and cooler temperatures don’t allow for the full build-up of sugars and flavor components; but the way I see it, the flavor of a cool season tomato harvested from your own garden is still ten times better than that of any tomato that can be bought at your local grocery store during that time of year.
There are a few important things to consider when planning for your cool season tomato crop. The first is the planting time. A common misconception is that cool season tomatoes can be planted in the cool season. Tomatoes must be planted while the weather is still warm to allow for good growth of the plants before they start flowering and fruiting. For us this means putting in young plants between early August and mid-September.
The second consideration is the planting location. Tomatoes benefit from as much sun as possible. This is especially true during the shorter and cooler days of fall and winter. A protected location which may stay a few degrees warmer than surrounding areas will be beneficial for fruit set and ripening. If possible, consider planting them in a location where they receive reflected heat such as near the south side of your house or a south-facing wall in your garden.
The third important consideration is the tomato variety that will be planted. Large-fruited varieties having long maturity dates are usually not good candidates to plant for a cool season crop. If you see tomatoes with names like ‘Siberia’, ‘Glacier’, ‘Sub-Arctic Maxi’ or ‘San Francisco Fog’, this is usually a clue that they will perform well in cooler conditions. I also look for varieties with listed maturity dates of less than about 65 days.
As for personal favorites, here are a few: ‘Champion’ is a medium-sized tomato that performs well under a wide variety of conditions, whether it be in the heat of summer or the cool weather of autumn. ‘Jetsetter’ and ‘Legend’ are newer hybrids with surprisingly large fruit and short maturity dates. Flavor also is good. I would love to know the origin of the name ‘Bloody Butcher’. This is an heirloom variety with wonderful flavor. It produces small, bright red fruit and is very prolific. In the warm winter of 2013/2014, I harvested this tomato, with flavor rivaling that of any summer tomato, until late February. Plants may be difficult to find, though, especially in summer. With a little extra effort, seed can be mail-ordered and easily started at home to produce your own plants. ‘Stupice’ is a small- to medium-sized heirloom variety that sets well under cooler temperatures. Most of the cherry tomatoes are good choices. They usually start fruiting very early and all that I have tried have good flavor. My favorite is ‘Sungold’ with deep yellow fruit. This one has become very popular in recent years. These are only a few of the varieties that are available to plant for a cool season crop.
As with summer tomatoes, cool season tomatoes may be planted in the ground, in raised beds or in large containers as I do. If planting in the ground, work a good quality soil amendment such as Harvest Supreme into the soil before planting. I use an organic fertilizer such as Dr. Earth Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer. When growing in containers, I fill them with straight potting soil. I have had good results using Sea Grow All Purpose or Acid Forming water-soluble fertilizer about every two to three weeks.
If you have never planted a late tomato crop, give it a try and enjoy a taste of summer long after summer has gone.