April 10, 2015
Nothing beats a luscious, seedy, juicy, vibrant homegrown tomato. The delight of plucking a tomato from its fuzzy stem in your own backyard, slicing it up with some basil you just snipped out of your herb garden, adding some fresh mozzarella and drizzling on redolent green olive oil from the farmers market — does it get any better?
As soon as the soil warms to optimally 65 degrees it is time to start planting for that summer harvest. Marin Master Gardeners are presenting its annual Tomato Market on April 18 to help you get a head start on summer.
Tomatoes have a reputation for being tricky to grow in Marin. The market offers 17 heirloom and hybrid varieties to help you choose just the right tomato for your microclimate. These plants have been grown in San Rafael at the Falkirk Cultural Center Greenhouse; the greenhouse was recently restored by the Marin Master Gardeners. The tomato starts are locals, already acclimated to our climate. In addition, the Master Gardeners will be staffing an booth at the Tomato Markets to answer your questions about planting, staking, cultivation or the variety that will work best in your location.
You will find old favorites like ‘Early Girl’ and ‘Big Beef.’ There are three types of delicious, easy-to-grow cherry tomatoes: ‘Sun Gold,’ ‘Sweet 100’ and ‘Chocolate Cherry.’ The heirloom varieties include ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green,’ ‘Cherokee Purple’ and ‘Three Sisters’— last year’s winner of the Master Gardener Edibles Guild taste test.
Is your mouth watering yet?
Tomato varieties can be determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes such as New Big Dwarf are bushy, have a maximum size (New Big Dwarf grows to 2 feet) and bear all their fruit at once. Indeterminate varieties like most cherry tomatoes ramble and continue to grow and bear fruit over the course of a season, until the frost gets them or you finally pull them up. Indeterminate tomatoes need to be supported by strong stakes or cages. Be sure to add the stakes as soon as you plant the tomato because later staking can damage the roots.
Once you have your precious plant you have to decide where to plant it. In general, the best place to plant your tomato is the sunniest spot in your garden or deck — somewhere with full sunlight at least six hours a day. Dig deep and add rich organic compost because medium-textured, soft, well-drained soil is best.
Water your plants thoroughly before planting. Tomatoes should be planted deep — instead of the usual plan of planting at the crown of the plant — pinch off the lower leaves and plant the stem at an angle all the way down so that just a few sets of leaves pop out above the soil. The tomato will put out roots from the whole stem to produce a stronger plant. Press the soil gently around the plant to form a slight bowl and water thoroughly to settle the roots.
When you water your tomato, try not to get the fruit or leaves wet. At first, check the soil and if the first 2 inches of soil are dry, then water. Once the plants have fruit set, gradually reduce the frequency until you are watering only every seven to 10 days.
Several varieties such as the ‘Flamme,’ ‘Moskvich,’ and ‘Green Zebra,’ as well as all three cherry varieties, can be grown in containers. There has to be plenty of soil so the plant can develop a strong root system. Plants in containers dry out more quickly than those in the ground so you need to keep an eye out to be sure they get enough water.
OK, so things can go wrong, but don’t worry, you can handle it. Sometimes there are aphids and hornworms. There are cultivation problems, such as incorrect watering, that can result in blossom end rot. There are tomato diseases.
The Master Gardener help desk can be reached by phone or email, or you can bring your sick plant into the office (wrapped in a plastic bag, please) for a diagnosis. There is also a wealth of information on the Master Gardener website at marinmg.org to help with tomato tips and address problems. Click on the links to “Tomato Market” and “All About Tomatoes” on the home page.
The Master Gardener Tomato Market in Novato will have a help desk set up to answer questions on the spot.
Now, go plant some tomatoes; come summer, you will be so glad you did.