For most of us, nothing says summer like just-picked tomatoes right out of your own garden. Even in the small garden spaces often afforded us it is nearly a requirement to tuck in a couple of tomato plants, nurture them and await their succulent and tasty rewards. Gardeners along the coastal areas of the county can choose from dozens of varieties; but a few adjustments will provide more fruit and better flavor.
In my own garden, I have become a bit of a tomato snob, growing about two dozen new varieties each year, counting and weighing each fruit as I harvest them, tracking the dates of their harvest and entering this and more into an annual computerized “Tomato Tally”. I trade seed, mostly heirlooms, with other fanatics around the country and test obscure varieties from often-obscure companies.
Most important, however are the countless after dinner “tastings” that I subject my family and friends to all summer. Never before grown varieties are cut to bite size, numbered, eyes are closed and the drama begins. (After about five or six of these evening “events”, when dad rolls out another large tray of 15 or 20 neatly prepared and numbered tomatoes my children suddenly realize they have a lot of homework to do.) But 345 pounds and 2882 fruits later we’ve decided the best and worst of the season. I’ve learned a great deal in the process of growing hundreds of tomatoes.
Above all else, a great tomato in a coastal garden begins with the right variety. Forget the “beefsteak” varieties and go with smaller fruited, quick yielding varieties like ‘Stupice’ (an heirloom from the Moravian area of the Czech Republic) or ‘Dona’ (a French gourmet selection). These two never disappoint. The best of the cherry-sized tomatoes are definitely ‘Sungold’ and ‘Suncherry Extra Sweet’. The flavor of ‘Momotaro, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’, ‘Marianna’s Peace’ or ‘Noire Charboneuse’ is unbeatable. Remember, the variety chosen is the first step toward growing a great tomato.
Along the coast don’t rush to plant too early. Mid March or April are perfect. Planting any earlier won’t produce earlier fruit, just disappointment. Choose a sunny spot where the air circulates freely. Either in a pot or in the ground, blend an organic mix to plant them into. If you are growing in pots, don’t bother with anything smaller than 16 inches across the top. I grow half mine in pots and half in the ground and there is little difference in the results . . . and yes, I plant in the same spot each year. For each plant use lots of compost or a quality amendment, a handful of some slow release organic fertilizer, such as Dr. Earth, and about 8-10 oz of Crab Shell Meal to prevent “blossom end rot” and a soil pest known as nematodes. The Crab Shell Meal might sound a little odd to the uninitiated, but is becoming a critical ingredient for many obsessed tomatoholics.
Bury the plant extra deep and water. As it grows be prepared to add a big, tall sturdy cage and do your best to keep the plant growing up through the center of the cage, not out the sides. Stand back, your plants will grow over a half-inch each day. Homegrown tomatoes easily outgrow and topple over the flimsy, thin cages that beginner gardeners fall victim to. Don’t be surprised if your plants grow to six feet or higher!
Once flowers and fruit begin developing keep the plants a bit on the dry side. Water deeply, but allow the plant to dry some between irrigations. One additional application of the same organic fertilizer two months after planting should be all the nutrition needed.
Choosing the proper variety, planting in full sun, rich organic soil and fertilizers and avoiding over watering will produce about eight to ten pounds of delicious tomatoes from each plant. Last year one plant of mine yielded over 50 pounds of fruit!
Prepare for the feast.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar