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Napa takes its tomatoes very seriously — even on a Saturday morning.

Shoppers began lining up for the annual Tomato Plant Sale 45 minutes before it opened to the public. It didn’t take long before the checkout line began to snake all the way to the back of the industrial center parking lot at 1710 Soscol Ave.

The University of California Master Gardeners of Napa County, which puts on the sale each year, arrived even earlier. They began setting up the night before, but returned before 6 a.m. Saturday to set up the nearly 6,000 plants of 26 varieties that they had grown for this year’s sale, said Barb O’Meara, chair of the sale.

Last year, the UC Master Gardeners sold out of its stock an hour and a half after opening to the public. Six hundred shoppers came in the first hour and registers handled a transaction per minute.

“The tomato sale, it’s a wild ride,” she said. “It is ‘Go as fast as you can, for as long as you can.’”

But the time and planning that goes into making the sale happen begins long before its Saturday sale, O’Meara said. The process starts two weeks after the sale, when gardeners take stock of what varieties their customers liked best last year and which varieties sold out the fastest. That helps them decide what to grow next year, she said.

This year’s bounty included Bloody Butcher red tomatoes, Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras and Brad’s Atomic Grape cherry tomatoes. Tomato plants went for $4, and for the first time, gardeners also sold basil plants for $2.

Some people may not even eat the tomatoes, but grow them because of their color and beauty, O’Meara said.

“Who doesn’t love a tomato?” she said.

Master gardeners meandered about the sale, offering red balloons to kids and answering questions for shoppers in line.

Gabe Pack of Napa loaded up his wheelbarrow with varieties such as Giant Syrian and Marianna’s Peace. He grabbed 24 plants that he plans to harvest in the late fall or winter. Saturday marked his fourth year coming to the sale, which he said seemed more popular than ever.

Pack said he loved the flavor and complexity of the sweet, savory and acidic tomatoes. Other places don’t sell tomatoes that compare, he said.

Napa resident Brandie Sylva agreed. She was among the first round of shoppers to show up and held a cardboard box of five plants, including Summer of Love and Chocolate Stripe tomatoes.

“The taste is amazing,” Sylva said. “You can’t get these kind of tomatoes at Home Depot.”

The sale had tomato varieties even for shoppers like Napa resident Michele Lofstrom, who had limited space to grow. She mainly stuck to smaller, cherry varieties.

“They’re just like candy,” she said.

Growing tomatoes at home

Napa Valley is home to many microclimates, so different tomatoes grow well in different parts of the county, Master Gardener O’Meara said.

“It’s location, location, location,” she said.

Gardeners should first figure out where they get 10 hours of full sun per day, then decide how much space they have. That determines whether they can grow heirloom or larger pound-to-two-pound tomatoes, she said.

If gardeners don’t get 10 full hours of sun, some varieties, such as cherry tomatoes, could grow with about seven hours of sun.

April 13 marked Napa County’s last frost date, she said. That means gardeners are free to plant their tomatoes.

Plants should always be bought from local nurseries, where vendors can advise customers based on the area that they’re in, O’Meara said. Avoid plants that are distributed nationally, because they might not work in all climates.

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Public Safety Reporter

Courtney Teague is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She can be reached at 707-256-2221. You can follow her reporting on Twitter and Facebook, or send her anonymous tip at: tinyurl.com/anonymous-tipbox-courtney.