Some tomatoes are called “heirlooms.” This means
they are old varieties whose seed has been saved over
many generations. “Hybrids” have been bred to enhance
some characteristic like flavor or color or hardiness
Tomato plants are either determinate or indeterminate.
Determinates grow to about 3 feet and stop growing. These
are great for containers. Indeterminate tomatoes continue
to grow all summer and need sturdy supports. Most heirlooms
Consider your climate first. Ask neighbors which
tomatoes they grow. We have long, hot summers in Napa
and can grow most tomatoes. For those of you with cool,
foggy summers along the California coast, or short summers
in the North, plant “early” varieties. Small cherry and
pear tomatoes are early and sweet. Try Sweet 100s, Sungold,
and Matt's Wild Cherry. Early Girls are medium-size and
perfect for salads.
Tomatoes come in fantastic colors. Look for Green Zebra,
Yellow Brandywine, Big Rainbow (marbled yellow, orange
and red), Tigerella, beautiful small Yellow Pear and Sungold,
and tomatillos, which are gorgeous in pale green or purple,
covered with a papery coating. Tomatillos make tangy fresh
salsa, or can be made into a sauce for chicken or fish.
For best flavor, our favorites are the huge Brandywine
tomatoes and Cherokee Purples.
Any tomato can be used for making sauce. I love a fresh,
barely cooked sauce of Yellow Brandywines. But some tomatoes
are naturally drier and meatier and traditional for sauce-making.
Try San Marzano, Principe Borghese, or Roma.
Tomato seeds take a week or two to germinate. You
can start them inside 6 to 8 weeks before your average
last frost date. But, as a wise gardener pointed out to
me “Until the soil really warms up, they're not gonna
grow.” Tomatoes need full sun and lots of it—8 hours a
day. Plants can be spaced one to two feet apart.
Tomato plants, especially indeterminate varieties, need
supports to hold their rambling vines and keep fruit off
the ground where it can rot. The tomato cages you buy
at the nursery are usually pretty flimsy but can work
fine, especially for determinates.
One year we trained Brandywines up a teepee. We stuck
four tall bamboo poles in the ground and tied them at
the top. We put a plant at the base of each pole and tied
them as they grew. This can be done with one plant and
one sturdy stake or pole. You must pinch out side shoots
as the plant grows, to keep it trained to the pole.
A method I like better is to pound two poles into the
ground three feet apart. Plant two tomato plants between
them and then tie string to the poles, running it back
and forth around the plants and poles. You could also
train tomato plants up a chain-link fence.
Tomatoes grow well in containers about 18 inches
deep. Choose determinate varieties or place the pots next
to a fence or something you can train indeterminate plants