Friday, May 29, 2009

Ssssshhhhh. The secrets of growing tomatoes.

Hush now. I recently spoke with a tomato whisperer and learned all the ins and outs for growing tomatoes here in the Northwest. And lucky you, I wrote about it in my column this week. You can read it here, or it's below for your tomato whispering convenience as well.

is it a pumpkin, or a tomato?

Are Tomatoes Calling Your Name?

Tips from a Tomato Whisperer

Oh sweet, red orb, the tomato, native to the warmer regions of South America and Mexico. Still, we Northwesterners, with our cool, wet seasons, desire to grow you in our gardens. Why do we mob the nurseries every spring to get our hands on you? Why do we invest in Walls of Water and obsess about red mulch, purported to grow tomatoes more successfully and with better flavor?

Dont believe me about this craziness? Try attending a late summer tomato tasting at a local nursery and making your way through the elbow-to-elbow crowd. Its the truth: We love our tomatoes!

There are sound reasons to grow tomatoes. The difference between a mealy, flavorless supermarket tomato and a vine-ripened backyard tomato is like night and day. Summertime meals of sliced heirloom tomatoes in all different colors, basil and fresh mozzarella cheese are a staple in our household. Thanks to farmers markets, many of us are discovering the glories of these flavorful heirloom tomatoes for the very first time, and heck, figure we can grow them ourselves. Heck! We sure can. But its best to know some things first

Its hard to pass up the heirloom tomatoes, with names like Bloody Butcher, Mr. Stripey (growing in my garden this year), Jellybean, Big Zac and Mortgage Lifter. They vary in color, size, striping, meatiness, texture and more. But instead of going for the catchy names, you want tomatoes that are going to produce good fruit.

The Portland areas mellow summer weather is dreamy, but it means we have a brief window for growing tomatoes. When youre choosing plants, stick to the short growing season variety.

Russian heirloom varieties tend to do well in Oregon because their season is relatively short and cool like ours, says expert tomato grower Linda Shively of Farmington Gardens (21815 SW Farmington Road, Beaverton, She recommends Stupice, an early-producing tomato with a salad-sized fruit and great flavor.

Shively says top sellers at Farmington Gardens are Early Girl, Sungold and Sweet Million, and they should know: Throughout the season theyll carry over 100 different varieties of tomatoes for sale. Shively suggests planting a selection of tomatoes, paced to provide fruit throughout the season. Get an Early Girl, but then get a Brandywine and a Cherokeee Purple. This will balance out the harvest over the season, says Shively.

Plant your tomatoes in the hottest spot in your garden. They need full sun and if thats in your front yard, looks like theyre going there. Now is the time to plant your tomatoes! If you planted them a month ago theyre most likely the same size now as then. When planting, youll want to pinch off the lower branches and dig a deep hole, throw in a handful of lime and some organic compost.

The tomato will send out roots along the stemline and have a bigger rootball, thus a more vigorous plant, Shively says. Feed the soil with great compost and youre good.

But what the tomato whisperer told me about clipping back tomatoes was all news to me. Once I have green fruit on mine, Ill snip away foliage shading the fruit, Shively says. Tomato plants put on way more foliage than they need for producing fruit: Cutting some out will help move things along.

Steady water will help them along, but come August, cut back on the watering and the plants will focus on producing and ripening fruit. I foresee scrumptious summer salads of heirloom tomatoes, basil and mozzarella in my future. Plant your tomatoes now, and you will too.


Christine said...

We got some tomatoes in about a month ago and have been coaxing them along with the help of water walls. These past few sunny days, they have taken off like crazy, and we're now letting them go naked in the garden.

But that's beside the point. I'm wondering if you've ever tried the upside down tomato planters (example: They seem kinda gimmicky to me, but having lost all of last year's tomatoes to blight, I'm definitely intrigued.

Zoe said...

you did it again... you made me wanting you for my neighbor!

Mark H said...

Yep, STUPICE and SUNGOLD are always MOST of the tomato plants WE grow too! BOTH have luscious flavor and are usually fact the sungold will produce into late September. Nice post, Lelo...we LOVE that tomato tasting they do at Farmington G......

Zip n Tizzy said...

Mine are starting to come up from seed. I'm really hoping they produce for exactly the reasons you say. A supermarket tomato is not even worth the time. Home grown tomatoes are amazing.

Sally said...


I am growing tomatoes in the UK. This weekend marks the date when all parts of the UK are frost free so planting out has happened!
I love the names of Heirloom tomatoes, so romantic.
I am intrigued by a 'wall of water'- that is new to me. I would love to know what it means ?

Cher said...

Zoe, all I can say is nyah nyah nyah. ;-P
Just kidding, though Lelo is an awesome neighbor and her garden is seriously inspirational.

Rozanne said...

Great post. I need to get some tomatoes in pronto. Or else.

hmstrjam said...

i love that tomato pic! The blue light really makes that orange pop! You might like these heirlooms..