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Marin IJ Articles

Debunking the myths about growing tomatoes

  • Marie Narlock
  • There's a lot of nonsense floating around about how to grow tomatoes. But you don't have to fall for it.

    To grow the tastiest tomatoes, rely on facts — not fiction. Here are common misconceptions about growing the queen of summer:

    • "They're all the same. I can buy any tomato, anywhere." Sure, and maybe you should've mail-ordered your kids, too. If you want to take your chances with an unknown variety grown and sprayed heaven knows where and drop-shipped to your local nursery, then go for it.

      If you want hand-selected tomatoes homegrown by experts at the lovingly restored Falkirk greenhouse in San Rafael, buy them at the Master Gardener tomato market on April 26 at the Bon Air Shopping Center in Greenbrae or Pini Ace Hardware in Novato. It's where you can choose Green Zebra, one of Alice Waters' favorites. Or perhaps Enchantment better suits your taste, since it's perfect for sauces. Or maybe Carmello's your style, the No. 1 tomato in Europe because of its sublime sugar and acid balance.

      Visit the Master Gardener website at www.marinmg.org to learn more about these and other varieties geared for success in Marin County and will be available at the tomato market.

    • "I should spray my tomatoes with magic-grow solutions." Let's start with the basics. Tomatoes shouldn't be sprayed at all, not even with water. Wet tomato leaves invite diseases. As for fertilizer, if you've amended your soil with compost, you're probably good to go. If you're a diehard plant feeder, use a fertilizer higher in phosphorus than nitrogen — and only when fruit appears.

    • "I live in the fog. There's no hope for me." That may be true if you want a tan, but not if you want luscious tomatoes. You just need the right varieties, such as Celebrity or Moskvich, noted for their ability to withstand cool temperatures.

    • "I only have a deck, so I'm out of luck." A handful of tomatoes grow happily in containers, including New Big Dwarf, which stay just 2 feet tall but pump out juicy tomatoes up to a pound each.

    • "We're in a drought, so I shouldn't grow tomatoes." News flash: every year is a drought year in California. We live in a Mediterranean climate that's bone dry every summer, remember? If you think growing tomatoes uses lots of water in your backyard, just think of the water it takes to seed, transplant, feed, irrigate, spray, harvest, wash, package and ship them to your local grocery store. Bottom line? There's no comparison. Water your tomatoes regularly (at the roots, not the leaves) until fruit sets and then cut back to once a week. Add a thick layer of mulch to keep moisture in and weeds out.
    • "I should plant my tomatoes ASAP so they get bigger than my neighbor's." Competitive tomato growing is challenging if you're impatient. Why? Because until the weather (and the soil) warms up, that sweet little tomato plant is going to just sit there. Wait until May 1 to plant your tomatoes. Planting earlier is usually a waste of time, and it invites disease.

    • "I need to buy those tomato cages at the nursery." Proceed with caution. Indeterminate tomato plants — that is, the ones that crank out fruit until it gets cold — grow from 6 to 12 feet tall. Those wimpy cages aren't going to cut it. Buy or build heftier supports for these monsters. Determinate varieties only grow 3 to 4 feet tall and are fine with little or no support.

    • "I should grow tomatoes upside down because I saw it in a magazine." My personal favorite. What's next? Growing redwood trees upside down? Stick with the good old-fashioned roots in the ground and the plant growing upward and chances are you'll be slicing tomatoes for summer barbecues before you know it.