Plant the Right Tomato
By Mary Gold, Sonoma County Master Gardener
I start dreaming of tomatoes around Valentine’s Day, just in time to start seeding them
indoors. Thoughts of BLTs slathered with mayo and piled high with crisp bacon and juicy tomatoes; fresh, tangy gazpacho; hot and piquant salsa, drift through my head as I begin my seeds indoors in early February. By the time May rolls around, I’ll have plenty of starts for myself and to give to friends. But sometimes life gets in the way of starting my tomatoes and I don’t make that all-important deadline. That’s when I trek to the local nursery to pick out seedlings to make those tomato dreams come true all through the summer and fall. You can begin your search for the perfect tomato starts in April, but make sure you don’t put those plants in until the first or second week of May…Mother’s day is the rule of thumb…a full month after the threat of any frost.
Because we live in Sonoma County with its many micro-climates and the heat that tomatoes need can be questionable in some areas, it’s important to choose the right tomato for your kitchen garden. If you’re new to growing tomatoes, the task of choosing from the hundreds available can be daunting. And just because those tomato starts are available at nurseries, doesn’t’ mean they are best for your particular micro-climate. Here’s a quick and simple guide to a variety of tomatoes that have been successfully grown throughout the county and are readily available. I’ve selected both hybrids and heirlooms in my quest for the best producers (see accompanying article on heirloom tomatoes).
The winner of the most reliable tomato for Sonoma County, whether you live in Sebastopol, Healdsburg or Glen Ellen, is Early Girl. Early Girl, as its name implies, is an early season tomato that can be grown successfully most anywhere in our county. It is widely available and yields plenty of firm, medium-sized tomatoes from late July through October. Other early season favorites are Shady Lady and Stupice. Early season varieties generally reach maturity in 70 days or less and these indeterminate types continue to ripen as the season progresses. Remember to stake or cage any of the indeterminate type.
For mid-season tomatoes, those that mature anywhere from 60 to 80 days, some County favorites are Celebrity, Carmello and Mortgage Lifter. Roma and San Marzano are paste-types that are also hearty mid-season reliable choices.
Late-season tomatoes that mature in 80 days or more are a bit uncertain in Sonoma County because of our cool night temperatures, but it’s been reported that OxHeart does well in some areas.
And don’t forget those cherries. Cherry tomatoes are some of the easiest to grow and can even be successful in containers. Favorite cherry types are Sun Gold, Sweet 100, and Black Cherry. And they are great for snacking on while you’re doing your garden chores!
No matter where you live in Sonoma County, remember that your tomato crop will need as much heat and sunlight as you can afford it. If you live in a cooler micro-climate, such as Sebastopol or Occidental, plant your tomatoes next to a wall or the side of the house. That wall will soak up the heat during the day and release it at night to give your tomatoes the extra night-time heat they crave. Give your tomatoes consistent watering with drip irrigation, if you have it, and plenty of organic matter and mulch. Don’t water your tomatoes from above; that can cause rot. And don’t handle your tomato plants when they’re wet, as this will open the door to pathogens. Planting two or three plants per person in your household will give everyone plenty of fresh eating all through the season. And if you plant early, mid and late season varieties, you will have an abundance of tomatoes up until the first frost in fall.
Here’s to your sweet tomato dreams!
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners