May 2006

With the days getting longer and the temperatures warming, many gardeners start thinking about growing their favorite garden fruit, TOMATOES. Getting a good home grown tomato can be a challenge in our cool summers, but here are some suggestions to help you.

Select a tomato variety that is suited for our climate. Local nurseries, farmers markets and community plant sales will have good Northwest varieties. Consider buying your tomato starts from the Orca Children’s Garden plant sale on May 13th, located on Ferdinand St one block west of Rainier Ave So. Also try shopping May 6th & 7th at the edible plant sale at Seattle Tilth, located on Meridian Ave. at the Good Shepard Center in Wallingford. These local growers will have many varieties to choose from including salad types, cherry types and sauce or plum tomatoes. It is fun to grow a few of the Heirloom types, though many require hotter summers and less rain than we have. I have found a good variety of tomato plants at the Columbia City Farmers market, which is open every Weds afternoon from 3-7 p.m.

There are two types of tomato vines: the shorter “determinate” type or the longer, “indeterminate” type which needs to be staked. I like the taller ones, indeterminates, that need to be staked, because I can harvest about 20 lbs. of tomatoes from each plant. The determinates are just small bushes and give only about 10 lbs of fruits. Some of my favorite varieties which require staking are: Early Girl, Early Cascade, SunGold Cherry, and Fantastic. For a cherry tomato, the SunGold is especially sweet. I have known several children say they don’t like tomatoes, and then they try the SunGold. Now they have converted to being tomato lovers. Sweet One Million is a great cherry because it gets so big and produces so much fruit. The skin on cherry tomatoes may have a problem with cracking when you pick them. SunGold is somewhat crack resistant, as is the Sweet One Million.

The heritage or Heirloom tomato varieties are very popular. These tomatoes are open pollinated, so you can save the seeds from year to year. These varieties have been passed down through generations for their flavor and simple backyard production. Brandywine is an heirloom that produces well in our cool summers. I am trying green Zebra this year. They often do not look like the classic tomato, but very often the classic looking tomato was bred for storage and color, not taste.

Always plant your tomatoes in the warmest, sunniest spot in your garden. They need at least 10 to 12 hours of bright sunlight, often doing better on the south side of a building. Night temperatures need to be above 50 degrees F to set fruit (i.e. for the plant to begin the real fruit production). An exception is the Stupice tomato variety which will set fruit at lower temperatures. I used to plant Stupice to get early tomato production, but its flavor and later production was disappointing. To keep the plants warmer, to plant earlier in the spring and to extend your tomato harvest even longer, it is a good idea to build “cloches” or some kind of plastic (or glass) tents over the tomato beds. I have seen many styles made of recycled materials and always enjoy how creative some gardeners are with this concept of “extending the season”.

For soil preparation, work some good compost into the soil before you plant, but don’t generally add extra nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen is good for growing greens, but for a tomato plant. Nitrogen encourages too much leaf growth and not fruit growth. Tomato plants don’t need a lot of water, just a couple times a week during our dry summers. Use a mulch of weed free compost, like Cedar Grove Compost, around the base of the plant to keep the soil moist and control weeds. Avoid bagged steer manure which may have too much nitrogen as a mulch for tomatoes.

Try to keep water off the leaves of a tomato plant. Just water the soil at the base of the plant. Tomatoes are susceptible to “blight” which is a water born infection the turns tomato leaves and stems brown and ruins the fruits. All tomatoes die of this blight in October, but less rainfall and careful watering can keep you harvesting from July until mid October.

Speaking of harvesting, there are lots of ways to eat your delicious, homegrown tomatoes. Besides fresh in salads and sandwiches, my favorite way to prepare tomatoes is to roast them. I fill the bottom of a baking dish with sliced onions and maybe garlic. Then I core the tomatoes, line them up on the onions and drizzle olive oil on them. Bake at 450 degrees for about an hour, till the shoulders are starting to brown. YUM, my mouth is already watering.

Just a quick mention of peeling tomatoes. Many people find the skins too tough to digest. Easily remove the skins by dipping the whole tomato in boiling water for 30 seconds, and the skin will just slip off. I especially do this before I freeze them. When I have more tomatoes from my garden than we can eat, I remove the skins, fill freezer bags, label them and put them in my freezer for winter soups and sauces.

Remember that a healthy diet means eating 5 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. For gardeners who have easy access to fresh produce, this vegetable rich diet is easier to maintain. When you go outside to water your garden, you may feel like having a snack. It is easy to pick some peas or raspberries or a few cherry tomatoes. How much better is that than going inside to grab a handful of chips or cookies? And when you are coming home from work, you take a quick cruise through your garden to select some fresh herbs, a handful of salad greens and some peas or beans to cook for your evening meal. Any part of a meal we harvest from our garden increases our vegetable intake and prevents the use of foreign oil used to ship produce around the USA. Home gardening allows us to take more control of our diet and our food system. Rejoice in your garden this season for all it gives you.

Happy digging.

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