Summer is nearly upon us, and that means it's time to plant those tomatoes! There are few veggies that are more beloved for home gardeners than tomatoes, and though you might be tricked into thinking that growing your own is some act of garden magic or sorcery, it's not true!!! Growing your own tomatoes can be simple and joyous, so why not join in the fun before the season gets away?
Just keep a few important things in mind and you will be well on your way to tomato heaven!
There are no substitutes for Sun, Soil, and Water. 90% of the success of your tomatoes (and your veggie garden in general) can be boiled down to Sun, Soil, and Water. If you have 6+ hours of daily sun, fertile well-drained soil, and you water your tomatoes regularly and appropriately, your tomatoes will go WILD! I promise.
Plant early, but not too early. Tomatoes take a long time to grow (80+ days!!!) and here in the Pacific Northwest our tomato growing season is shorter than more southern climates. For this reason, planting at the right time of year is extremely important! Plant your tomatoes too late in the year (after June 15th), and your tomatoes may not have enough time to mature and ripen fruit before the Fall. But plant too early in the year (Before May 1st) and they will likely become stunted by cold night time temperatures. For optimal growth and a long harvest window, aim for planting in mid-May or when nighttime lows are consistently above 50º.
Plant from starts. Because tomatoes take so long to grow, they need to be grown from vegetable starts or they won’t mature in time for a long harvest season. Purchase healthy starts from local nurseries for planting.
Plant deeply. Tomatoes (and other vegetables in the Solanum family) are “adventitious rooters” meaning they love to make roots. If tomato stems are buried in the soil, they will be stimulated to produce roots instead of growing vegetatively. This is a good thing, as early in the season, when temperatures are cooler, it is more important that your tomato plants develop strong root systems than that they grow vegetatively. By planting your tomatoes extra deep, you can use this rooty habit of tomatoes to your advantage. Before planting, remove the bottom 2-3 branches and plant starts 2-3” below the soil surface to encourage stems to produce more roots. Remember: More roots early in the season = more fruit late in the season!
Fertilize. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and require more nutrients than many other vegetables in order to grow strong and produce an abundance of fruit. Before planting starts, mix 1/4-1/2 cup of organic vegetable fertilizer into each planting hole to give your tomatoes what they need to thrive. Many fertilizers that are specifically for tomatoes will have higher Phosphorous (P) levels to promote flowering and fruiting. Using special tomato fertilizer isn’t essential, but it can help!
Tomatoes need support. ...No, not that kind. ….well, maybe… But anyhow, tomatoes can grow to be very tall (as tall as 6+ feet!) and within a few weeks after planting they aren’t able to support their own weight. Tomato cages are essential in supporting the weight of mature plants. If left unsupported tomatoes will grow close to the ground and be difficult to manage and mature fruit will rot. Give your tomatoes support from the very beginning and you will be rewarded!
Water Wisely. Tomatoes are highly prone to fungal diseases. For this reason, avoid watering the leaves of tomatoes and concentrate water on the ground at the base of the plant. Watering plants in the morning will also encourage evaporation during the day and limit moisture during evening hours when fungal diseases are most likely to spread. Once your tomatoes begin to produce ripe fruits, reduce watering significantly to promote concentrated flavors and sweetness and to prevent cracking of ripe fruit.
What Varieties of Tomatoes Should I Grow?
Many Gardeners’ opinions about tomato varieties are as deeply held as their political views, and while we are always trying out new varieties, we certainly have our favorites as well. But they aren’t secrets, and we love nothing more than sharing what we have learned from many years of growing!!!
“So,” you ask, “If you could only grow three tomatoes, what would they be?”…
‘Sungold:’ I have tried a lot of different cherry tomato varieties, and if you ask me, nothing holds a candle to Sungold. Early to mature and vigorous in growth, Sungold often outgrows it’s tomato cage in my garden. These incredibly productive, disease resistant plants produce abundant deep orange cherry tomatoes with exceptional sweetness and firmness. They are like candy. ...Just ask the kids.
‘Stupice:’ I learned about this variety from Laura Masterson years ago when I managed 47th Avenue Farm here in Portland. Stupice is another very early to mature and productive indeterminate variety that produces firm plum sized fruit with wonderful sweetness. I love Stupice because of it’s versatility. It is great sliced for a sandwich or burger, chopped into salads, or slow roasted in the oven until it condenses into something entirely different and utterly magical.
‘Brandywine:’ This heirloom variety is universally adored, and for good reason. With distinctive “potato leaf” foliage on a strong and hearty plant, Brandywine is more productive than many heirlooms and produces large, delicate, burgundy fruits with incredible sweetness and richness. This is the perfect tomato for Caprese salad. ...Or for eating like an animal in the garden, seeds and juices spilling over and ruining a good shirt.
Happy Growing, Ian
Owner and Founder, Portland Edible Gardens, LLC