Ah, springtime. It’s that time of the year when a gardener’s thoughts turn to… tomatoes. Of all the vegetables you can grow in a summer garden, nothing beats vine-ripened tomatoes. They are so superior to the winter tomatoes at the supermarket that you can’t even compare.
To succeed with tomatoes, pay attention to a few key factors. First, the soil needs to be warm, at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The urge to get your hands in the dirt and plant something is almost primal, but planting tomatoes too early does not work in your favor.
Second, tomatoes need lots of sun—at least six to eight hours of direct sun per day but 10 hours is not too much. Plant them deep to encourage a healthy root system. Tomatoes can root at stem joints, so bury the first set of leaves on the stem.
Tomatoes mature at different rates depending on the variety. From the day of transplanting, an early tomato takes 50 to 65 days; a late-season tomato requires 80 days or more and mid-season tomatoes fall in between.
I have a fairly small space suitable for tomatoes and I always tell myself that one or two plants is all I need. This assertion has never worked and I end up planting wherever I can find some sun, sometimes in my flower beds. It is hard for me to say ‘no’ to a tomato plant without a home.
This year, I’m again trying to narrow my choices, but there are so many interesting varieties. I’ve been successful with Goldie, an heirloom whose name describes its beautiful color. This vigorous producer has firm, meaty flesh, tender skin and few seeds. One slice will cover a sandwich.
This year, I’m also considering Chocolate Stripes, another handsome heirloom. It has a rich, mahogany-colored skin with olive-green striping. The plant yields a plentiful crop of three- to four-inch fruits with rich, complex, sweet, earthy flavor. It produces well into autumn. Imagine these plump, juicy beauties lined up on your kitchen counter.
Boxcar Willie is another large tomato. The plant yields an abundant crop of 10- to 16-ounce reddish-orange fruits. An heirloom variety, it is sure to be a reliable producer in your garden. It keeps cranking out tomatoes until frost and shows good resistance to disease and cracking.
The newly released Summer of Love is an improved variety of the popular Berkeley Tie Dye, with the same eye-catching swirls of green, pink and yellow when sliced. It has the same great flavor but ripens earlier and yields more.
Another intriguing choice is the cherry tomato Rapunzel, with its cascading red fruit. Just like in the fairy tale, Rapunzel puts out impressively long, cascading racemes, each loaded with sweet cherry tomatoes that keep coming all summer long. Harvest whole clusters and enjoy the tomatoes individually as they ripen. Be ready to stake this tomato; it can reach eight feet in height. This one is going in the “for sure” category for me because it grows up, not out, and will take up less space.
It’s important to site your plants in a different location than last year’s tomatoes, even if only by a few feet. Soil-borne diseases build up and can reduce your yields or even destroy your crop. Devise a crop-rotation schedule and avoid planting any members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes) in the same location more than two years in a row. I move my nightshade plants every year and don’t return them to that location for at least three years.
If you have no choice but to plant in the same place, try hybrid tomato varieties that have been developed for disease resistance. Super Marzano Hybrid VFNT is resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes and tomato mosaic virus. Be aware that resistant does not mean immune. In soils where your tomatoes have experienced problems in the past, even disease-resistant varieties may underperform. Consult the University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources publication 8159 (“Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden”) for more information (http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/repositoryfiles/8159-54222.pdf).