by Anne Berblinger, Gales Meadow Farm
Tomatoes are not hard to grow, but they do need care and attention. The key ingredients to tomato success in our area are:
- Selecting the right varieties
Our area is not ideal for growing tomatoes, because tomatoes need warm nights that stay above 65°F, or even better above 70°F. That doesn’t happen here. The last summer we lived in the Washington D.C. area, the low was 89°F one night. Which would you rather have, our pleasant cool nights, or the widest possible selection of tomato varieties? I choose cool nights, since there are still (really!) thousands of tomato varieties to choose from. The classic Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, Mortgage Lifters and the Hybrid Beefsteaks are only going to give us ripe tomatoes in September, if then. But we can have Prudens Purple, Victoria, Astiana, and Anna Russian, which are every bit as wonderful as the best known heirlooms. And some of them qualify as heirlooms themselves, being more than 100 years old.
We grow early and mid-season varieties, as do the other tomato plant vendors at the Hollywood, Hillsdale, and Peoples Co-op Market. Feel free to ask when you can expect tomatoes from the variety you choose. But don’t expect a very precise answer, since it all depends on “degree days,” a measure of how many warm hours we will have between now and tomato time. Early tomatoes are usually ready before the end of July, and mid-season tomatoes in August. Gales Creek, where we have our farm, is colder than Portland. The cool air from the top of the Coast Range comes down the Gales Creek Canyon every night in summer and settles on our fields. So if a tomato works for us, it will work for a garden in Portland.
If you can only grow your tomatoes in pots, choose varieties that have been bred to grow well in pots. We have seven varieties that do splendidly in pots.
- Choosing the right location
Tomatoes need good soil and as much sun as they can get. At least ten hours of sun a day is ideal, and six hours is the absolute minimum. If your garden area is too shady to provide that, pick a sunnier spot and grow container varieties. Some tomatoes that do fairly well with less than ten hours a day are Sungold, Uralskiy Ranniy, Stupice, and Victoria. Cherry tomatoes are usually more tolerant of less than 10 hours than bigger ones.
If your tomato location has not been used as a garden spot before, put off getting your tomato plants and spend some time preparing it. Remove a layer of sod (or all the weeds if that is what is there). Dig in generous amounts of your own or purchased compost.
- Proper transplanting
Tomatoes like to be “planted deep.” That means you can take off the bottom leaves and bury the bottom 1/3 to ½ of the stem. Some people like to plant them horizontally, so that part of the buried stem is in the very top layer of the soil. This is fine. Tomatoes need to be 2 to 2½ feet apart. You can fill the space between with lettuce or basil.
Dig a hole quite a bit deeper than the pot the tomato is in. Put in half a cup of complete organic fertilizer. We use the Steve Solomon mix, named after the founder of Territorial Seeds. 4 parts fish meal, 1 part calcium carbonate (garden pearls), one part kelp meal, ½ part bone meal. You can get these ingredients at Portland Nursery or Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply. Or you can use a pre-mixed organic fertilizer. Mix the fertilizer in with the soil at the bottom of the hole, and then add a few inches of soil back in. Put the tomato into the hole, and pack the soil around it by hand. Water it well. If you plant it in the middle of a hot sunny day, check it in the evening and water it again if it is wilty. It takes a day or so for the roots to take hold in a new place.
And please label your tomato plants, so you know which ones you love the most and do the best for you. You can write the name with a Sharpie on a canning jar lid and tie it to the cage or affix it to a stick.
Pint mixing sticks make great markers.
The conventional wisdom, which will serve you well, is that tomatoes need to be watered consistently until the fruit starts to show a little color. Then you can cut back or cease watering completely. Consistent watering means watering very well and then not watering again until the top of the soil is dry to the touch. If a young plant starts to wilt because it got too dry, watering will bring it back with no harm done. If a plant gets to the crunchy stage, it is probably a goner. Tomatoes grown with inconsistent watering may develop blossom end rot. The treatment for that is to cut the bad part off and enjoy the rest.
We are working with Oregon State on some dry farming research. In 2016, we had great success with Champagne Bubbles and Early Girls that were grown with absolutely no irrigation after they were planted. Yields were lower than with irrigated tomatoes, but still generous, and the flavor was amazing. Last year, we grew Trinity, Early Girl F2 from saved seeds, Champagne Bubbles, and one each of our other varieties in our dry patch. They all did well, so this year, we will grow all our tomatoes without irrigation. If you want to try dry farming tomatoes, have a place for them away from the rest of your garden.
Here’s a source of information on the dry farming project: http://smallfarms.oregonstate.edu/dry-farm/dry-farming-collaborative
- Pruning and support
Most of the tomato plants we grow are indeterminate, which means they like a cage or another means of support. Do not waste your money on flimsy cages. Tomato plants get big and heavy and need real support. We use heavy-duty cages for our cherry tomatoes. We make bamboo pyramid structures for the others. We tie the stems to the bamboo with cut-up socks and t-shirts. String is bad; it will cut into the stems. There are many good methods for supporting tomatoes; the Internet is full of them. And it is not against the law to let them sprawl if you have room. The disadvantage of sprawling tomatoes is that they are harder to pick and more subject to slug damage.
We prune the cherry tomatoes lightly if at all. With all the other tomatoes, we prune out the suckers. Those are the wanna-be stems that grow in the armpits between the main stem and the leaves. Our goal is to have one stem per tomato plant, but we often end up with two or three. That’s ok. What you don’t want is twenty or more stems, because then the plant will devote itself to growing foliage rather than fruit. Around Labor Day, it’s a good idea to cut off the growing point of each stem, since any tomato blossom that appears after that is too late to produce a tomato. When you cut off the growing points, the plant concentrates on ripening the remaining fruit.
It’s ideal to pick tomatoes when they are dead ripe if they are going to be eaten or preserved that day. But picking them when they have good color but are still a bit firm will not result in diminished flavor, and will allow more flexibility in when they are used. If you are growing a variety you have not tried before, it may be hard to tell when they are fully ripe. Green Zebras have dark and light green stripes throughout development, and the light green stripes turn yellow when they are ripe. Some of the heirloom tomatoes stay green on the shoulders around the stem. This is good, since green shoulders and the best flavor go together genetically. A good test for ripeness is the feel – ripe tomatoes are a bit soft. If your tomatoes are grown in a garden with other plants that need more watering, pick them when they are a little under-ripe to avoid having them split.
If it rains, all of the tomatoes that are close to ripe should be picked quickly, since they will split if they stay on the plant after a rain.
If you have questions, ask them! The vendors who sell tomato plants and the Master Gardeners are more than happy to help you achieve tomato success.