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In the Garden

Tomatoes are the most satisfying vegetable to grow. Warm tomatoes, plus the green scent and color tomato plants leave on your hands, can only be experienced at home.

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  Sanna Delmonico
M.S., R.D., Editor
P.O. Box 5756
Napa, CA 94581
Ph: 707.251.0550
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Growing Tomatoes

We plant tomatoes soon after our average last frost day, April 15th. The seedlings look tiny in the bare garden bed. There is no hint of how huge and sprawling the plants will become or how luscious their fruit will be. Even tomatoes from the Farmers' Market aren't as delicious as the ones, still hot from the summer sun, that we pick and slice for supper in August, September and October. I don't think there is any vegetable more satisfying to grow. Warm tomatoes, plus the green scent and color tomato plants leave on your hands, can only be experienced at home.

 

growing tomatoesTomato Basics
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 to disease.

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 are indeterminate.

Choosing Tomatoes
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.

Planting Tomatoes
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.

Supporting Tomatoes
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.

Container Gardening
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 to.

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