You want to grow tomatoes in chilly Santa Cruz? You can do it, and they will be delicious, but there are rules.
Give them sun. Yes, even the varieties with names that imply otherwise (San Francisco Fog, Oregon Spring), tomatoes require eight hours per day of sunshine to thrive. But don’t waste a sunny garden spot on tasteless “Fog” tomatoes. There are better choices for our climate.
Wait till nighttime temperatures reach 50˚F. Plant too early, and tomatoes will sulk until the ground warms up.
Choose short-season tomatoes bred to ripen in 60 – 75 days. The number is usually noted on the nursery tag – that little plastic strip that lists the name of the grower, the tomato variety, and a vague litany of delicious adjectives. No matter how delectable the description – if days to ripening exceed 70, calculate declining odds of this plant thriving in our coastal zone.
Incidentally, do not take that ‘days to ripening’ number literally. If you plant a row of Early Girl seedlings on April 20th, they will not be ready to eat on June 19th. Not even close. You might get a few in July, with the real harvest arriving in August, September, even October.
Avoid seedlings with flowers or fruit. Buying the biggest, most mature-looking seedling is a rookie mistake. Flowers or fruit on a tiny plant is a cry for help – a last-ditch effort to reproduce before it runs out of steam. The best pick is a leggy seedling with vibrant green leaves from base to tip, or a short and healthy plant.
If an otherwise promising seedling has tiny flowers, pinch them off before planting. Plant the leggy seedlings deep, burying all but the top few inches. The stems will sprout roots and give a sturdy foundation. A small healthy seedling will quickly outgrow a larger stressed-out plant.
Feed the soil, not the plant. OK, this applies to everything in the garden, especially if you grow organically. Plant tomatoes in compost-rich soil, with the moisture-holding compost tilled deep into the root zone. Compost keeps soil moisture levels stable, helping avoid stress, and provides slow-release nutrients for plants and soil organisms. Every year or two I also add a scoop of bone meal, which decomposes slowly and seems to protect against blossom-end rot. Hard-core composters grind up saved eggshells and use that instead of bonemeal.
Tomatoes will grow in pots – big pots. Don’t torture them with anything smaller than a five-gallon container.
Invest in tomato “insurance”. My policy involves planting a few varieties that lack novelty but never fail to produce. My insurance portfolio includes Early Girls, or close genetic relative First Lady. These medium-size salad tomatoes always turn out a decent-to-enormous crop, taste terrific (especially if not overwatered), and also make deeply flavorful sauce.
Juliet, a robust producer of smaller plum-shaped fruit, really shines in sauce and salsa. The firm little fruits look beautiful when canned whole. Sungold cherry tomatoes are amazingly tasty and prolific, with a gorgeous golden color.
With Early Girl, Juliet and Sungold in the garden, my family gets fresh tomatoes and a stash of homemade sauce even during the foggiest, windiest, blightiest summers that coastal Santa Cruz can serve up. But no true gardener is satisfied with a sure thing. Once you’re insured, take a chance from the alluring rainbow of heirloom varieties on your garden center shelves. Over the years I’ve tried dozens of novel varieties, and found a handful of favorites among the failures.
Black Krim salad tomatoes are gorgeous, reliable and uniquely delicious. Stupice is reliable and tasty. Clear yellow Lemon Boy salad tomatoes are low-acid and add a beautiful pop of color. Black Plum tomatoes make a rich, dark sauce, and Black Cherry offers a color and complex flavor contrast to super-sweet red and gold cherries.
At this moment, in exactly mid-May, a cold noontime wind is gusting outside and foreshadowing a tough year in the tomato patch. It has been cold all week. But the soil has been warm for a month, and my Early Girls, Black Krims, Sungold and even the sensitive Lemon Boy are visibly bigger every day.
Hoping for the best, but keeping my insurance.