I have been gardening for most of my life. One of my earliest memories is of my parents and me, barely four years old, moving into our house on Long Island with a large back yard. That first summer I helped my mom plant yellow marigolds and my dad plant his first tomato plants. By the end of the summer the tomato plants towered over my head. This left a lasting impression. Every year after that, my dad put in his three or four tomatoes, and every year I would drag my mom to our local garden center to buy a large, one gallon plant of ‘Burpee’s Big Boy’ tomato which I proudly presented him as my Father’s Day gift.
Eventually, I took over most of the gardening. I was the one who now planted the dwarf yellow marigolds bordering our rose garden (these were always a favorite of my mom), along with an ever-expanding variety of plants – and, of course, the tomatoes.
As long as I can remember, there was always an unofficial contest in the neighborhood as to who could pick the first tomato every year, with ripe tomatoes by the Fourth of July being the goal. We couldn’t wait for those first rich red, juicy, flavorful tomatoes to ripen which, of course, meant an end to the pale, hard, nearly flavorless supermarket fruit that masqueraded as tomatoes. This is probably the main reason why growing tomatoes has become so popular – you just can’t buy tomatoes that are as good as those fresh-picked from your own garden!
Of gardening households in the U.S., 93% grow tomatoes, making it the most widely grown vegetable. It was first domesticated by the Incas and Aztecs in South America about 1,400 years ago. Since then the tomato has made its way around the world where different varieties have been bred and selected. It is estimated that now there are between 10,000 and 20,000 distinct varieties! There is a tomato of every size, shape, color, and flavor to suit just about anyone’s taste.
In Southern California, March is a good time to start thinking about planting tomatoes. I always have a hard time deciding which ten or twelve varieties I’m going to plant each year. This year, Roger’s Gardens is offering close to 200 different varieties in 4 inch pots.
As usual, I’m having a difficult time narrowing my choices. After all, I want to grow them all! I’ve learned over the years that by planting half heirloom varieties and half modern hybrids, I seem to have the best of both worlds. Heirlooms offer a wide range of different flavors and colors, but generally, hybrids offer higher yields of good tasting tomatoes on easier-growing, more disease-resistant plants.
For the last three years, ‘Brandy Boy’ has been my favorite. This tomato has been bred from the heirloom variety ‘Brandywine.’ It offers the same rich, complex flavor as ‘Brandywine’, but is earlier and is a much better yielder. Another tomato I can’t do without is ‘Momotaro.’ ‘Momotaro’ was bred in Japan, and has great flavor with a good balance of sweetness and acidity. This year, I’m planting a grafted ‘Momotaro,‘ one of about twelve varieties that Roger’s is selling in one gallon pots. Although a little more costly, grafted tomatoes offer greater disease resistance, are more vigorous and give higher yields.
Other tomatoes that have proven themselves are ‘Cherokee Purple’; ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’, a large, orange beefsteak-type; ‘Jetsetter’, a hybrid with large, good-tasting fruit on disease resistant plants, and ‘Champion.’ ‘Champion’ is a hybrid with good-tasting, medium-sized fruit, and is a reliable, good producer.
For a cherry-type tomato I like ‘Sungold’ which is high-yielding, great tasting and sweet. ‘Suncherry Extra Sweet’ and ‘Sweet Million’are good cherry types with red fruit. Everyone has his or her favorites, though. There certainly are other varieties, which will become favorites for other people.
Tomatoes are easy to grow if a few basics are followed. I plant my first tomatoes about mid-March. The last of mine are planted in early- to mid-May. First of all, choose a sunny site. A minimum of five or six hours of direct sun will give the best results. I add a good quality amendment, such as Harvest Supreme, to the soil before planting. An organic vegetable fertilizer, such as Dr. Earth, is important to keep plants growing. It is important to provide regular water, especially when fruit is developing.
Irregular, inconsistent watering may lead to a physiological condition known as Blossom End Rot, which manifests itself as the bottom end of the developing tomato becoming brown and sunken. Most tomato plants can grow quite tall, meaning they will need some kind of support. I use eight-foot high stakes, which I pound into the ground about a foot deep. A good alternative is to use a good, strong tomato cage. If a fungicide is needed to control one of many leaf fungal diseases, which may appear, copper-based Liqui-cop, is very effective.
I usually grow half of my plants in large, 18-inch containers, using a good potting soil. Closer attention to fertilizing and watering is needed compared to plants growing in the ground. During hot summer weather, I usually need to give my plants a good daily soaking. For fertilizer, I have had good results using water-soluble fertilizers made by Grow More, called Sea Grow All Purpose or Sea Grow Acid Forming. Although tomatoes don’t need an acid fertilizer, mine seem to like this one. I use either of these fertilizers every two to three weeks.
In Southern California, we are fortunate to be able to grow a second, cool-season fall crop. This, I usually plant starting in late July. The idea is to get good growth during the warm summer months. I usually begin harvesting in late September. In years with mild late fall temperatures, I have picked tomatoes until Christmas or later, giving me a taste of summer during the cool, cloudy days of winter.
So what tomato varieties are best suited for the second, cool-season fall crop?
Tomatoes best suited for second planting or fall crops are what are known as “Siberian” varieties and also determinate varieties with maturity dates under 80 days. Shorter stout plants are most likely to survive cooler night temperatures and have smaller less extensive root systems which make container growing ideal. Containers allow me to easily protect my plants just in case of damaging weather. I made the comment about container growing because I do have plants in the ground that can survive the winter. By planting in containers I do not have to remove those plants in favor of the cool seasoned crop.
Horticulturist, Team leader