There are so many amazing fruits and vegetables to eat in the summer months that it’s hard to single out just one. Blenheim apricots — check. Suncrest peaches — check. Greengage plums — check. And then there are tomatoes.
There’s almost nothing you can grow in your garden if you have some sun that will give you more bang for your buck than tomatoes. They are easy to grow from seed, but if you want to skip that step, head to the UC Marin Master Gardeners’ Tomato Market and Information Exchange at 9 a.m. April 27 at Pini Hardware in Novato and Bon Air Shopping Center in Greenbrae.
UC Marin Master Gardeners keep meticulous records on which tomatoes do best in Marin’s microclimates and make recommendations on the website for cultivars to consider for your growing conditions. See marinmg.ucanr.edu and click on the link to the 2019 Tomato Plant Sale.
If you live in the chilly reaches of the county consider growing ‘Carmello,’ ‘Japanese Black Trifele,’ ‘Paul Robeson’ or ‘Jaune Flamme,’ heirlooms that tolerate cooler conditions and mature a little faster. If looking for superior yield or disease resistance think about trying hybrids such as ‘Jetsetter,’ ‘Sun Gold,’ ‘Sweet 100’ or the ever reliable, tasty and aptly named ‘Early Girl.’ If you’re lucky enough to live in parts of the county that get a real summer you could try any of the 20 varieties Marin’s master gardeners have been nurturing at the Falkirk greenhouse since March.
Though local nurseries will have tomato starts in by now, your plants will benefit from waiting until the soil has warmed up, typically in late April. Planted too early, they’ll simply sit there and sulk like a wet dog. Putting them in the warmer ground at the right time will give them the message to get going and grow.
Dig a deep hole and cut all but about the top three leaves off and plant at an angle right up to the bottom leaf; roots will develop along the stem. Consistent moisture, not too much, will help avoid such pesky diseases as blossom end rot and cracking. Rotate tomatoes and other plants in the nightshade or Solanaceae family, including peppers, potatoes and eggplant every two to three years to another part of the garden to keep other diseases such as verticillium wilt at bay.
Tomatoes come in two general growth patterns: determinate or indeterminate. Determinate or bush tomatoes grow to about 3 to 5 feet and bear most of their fruit in about 4 to 6 weeks, which makes them ideal for canning or cooking into sauce to freeze. Indeterminate plants will produce fruit all summer and can grow to 10 feet. Both will benefit from staking, caging or trellising to keep fruit off the ground.
There are a couple of different genetic types of tomatoes to consider. Basically, heirlooms are old (usually 50 years or older) open-pollinated varieties from which you can save seed to plant the next year. Heirlooms don’t always produce a huge yield, but colors and flavors are varied and often outstanding. ‘Green Giant’ or ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ are delicious, sweet and spicy all at once. ‘Brandywine,’ introduced in 1885, is a beautiful, tasty red-pink beefsteak. In recent years, some new open pollinated varieties have been developed that allow for saving seed: ‘Blush Cherry,’ ‘Chocolate Cherry’ and ‘Pineapple’ are among them.
Hybrids are the result of breeding for disease resistance and superior yield and will not come true from saved seed. My favorite hybrid is ‘Sun Gold,’ a little orange cherry that explodes in your mouth like a burst of sunshine. The UC Marin Master Gardeners get together and rate tomatoes they’ve grown and ‘Sun Gold’ often wins, though ‘Blush Cherry’ was an exception and won last year.
If you’ve never grown tomatoes before, give them a try and you’re in for a delicious, pleasant surprise this summer.