MANTECA, CALIFORNIA — Gardeners, plant your seedlings — tomato season is about to begin! Competitive tomato gardening is a traditional neighborhood sport, and Certified Nursery Professional Nanci Nichols has several tips to keep you at the front of the pack for producing this juicy summer crop.
Plant them deep. With most plants, putting them in the ground is the easy part. Roots under ground, leaves above. Right? Wrong. If your seedling is 8" tall, snip off branches from the bottom six inches and leave only the top two inches above ground. Every hair along the tomato's fuzzy stem will become a root, and a more extensive root system means a stronger, more productive plant.
As an added bonus, planting so deep allows the tomato to use the soil as a protective barrier against cool weather, enabling you to plant earlier. In California's Central Valley, Nichols plants her tomatoes the last week in February using this method. Just thinking about starting your tomato garden now? Don't worry. In mild climates like the Central Valley, the extended growing season means you can still look forward to a crop even if you plant as late as June.
Fertilize them. Nichols performed her own test years ago, planting four rows of plants, one with Master Start, one with steer manure, one with bone meal and a control row with no additives. The top performer? The row with the bone meal. After the initial planting with bone meal, Nichols likes to use fish emulsion at least once a month, or even every two weeks. The organic fertilizer doesn't absorb as rapidly as some chemical fertilizers, she says, but in the long run it is much more available to the plant.
Stress them out. Tomatoes won't fruit if they have it too easy. "If you've got a six foot tall, gorgeous plant that's loaded with flowers but you've got no tomatoes, you're watering too much," Nichols says. Water them regularly until you see a lot of new growth, then cut back. How much? Water deeply on a Saturday, then stop watering and see how long it takes for the leaves to begin to wilt. "You want to stress it, but not to the point of wilt every time. If it wilts in six in days, then water it every five. If it wilts in four days, water it every three."
Healthy bones, healthy tomatoes? A dose of calcium when you first plant, in the form of dolomite lime, will help combat blossom end rot and give the plant the nutrients it needs to hold fruit on. If you look at the ingredient of blossom set sprays, the active ingredient is calcium, Nichols points out, but supplying the calcium near the roots as the plant is growing is a much more efficient way to get the nutrient to where it's needed most.
Be supportive. Tomatoes are vines. Large ones. "Everyone wants the little tomato cages," Nichols smiles. "Some people don't realize how big tomatoes get." Most varieties run at least six feet tall, so select your support structure appropriately. Methods include stakes, trellises, bamboo teepees, wire cages, and even wire fencing you can wrap around a plant that has outgrown an earlier support. "Or if you have room, you can let them sprawl. They actually produce more that way," Nichols says. She advises some sort of prop or grate underneath them to keep the fruit off the ground, however, to prevent damage from insects or rot.
Patio varieties are the exception to the rule. They are bred to stay smaller and develop a thicker stem that does not require staking. Though the fruit is also smaller, patio varieties tend to be very tasty and will even thrive in a container — great for when you have limited space.
Choose varieties wisely. "There are so many good varieties out there that if you have a lot of room, absolutely experiment," Nichols says. "Keep a record of which you like, and which grow best for you. But if you have limited room, the three best tasting, longest producing varieties are Early Girl, Ace, and Beefmaster." Early Girls produce smaller fruit with good taste, with frequent crops that start early in the season. Ace tomatoes are outstanding, all around. Beefmaster are widely considered to be the very best tasting fruit, but the large, meaty tomatoes take a long time to develop. Planting one of each variety will ensure a satisfying growing season on all fronts.
Some special varieties of note: The Green Zebra produces a low-acid, stripy green fruit, while the Black tomato produces fruit that are indeed virtually black. Brandywines are a very delicious, beefsteak-like heirloom variety, with large, flavorful and often misshapen fruit. Cherry tomatoes and San Francisco Fogs are good choices for spots that don't get full sun, though even those varieties still require a minimum of four to five hours of sun a day.
With expert advice like this, you should have a booming tomato crop in no time, but there is one last rule Nichols likes to offer when it comes to gardening methods. "My theory has always been if you've got something that works for you, use it."
Nanci Nichols has been a certified Master Nursery Professional and an Advanced California Certified Nursery Professional in the Central Valley for 16 years. She currently works for Orchard Supply Hardware on Main Street in Manteca, where she is always happy to offer yard and garden advice.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin, and has been slightly revised.