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?
Don’t 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. It’s 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 it’s best to know some things first…
It’s 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 area’s mellow summer weather is dreamy, but it means we have a brief window for growing tomatoes. When you’re 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, farmingtongardens.com). 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 they’ll 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 that’s in your front yard, looks like they’re going there. Now is the time to plant your tomatoes! If you planted them a month ago they’re most likely the same size now as then. When planting, you’ll 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 you’re good.”
But what the tomato whisperer told me about clipping back tomatoes was all news to me. “Once I have green fruit on mine, I’ll 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.