Not everyone grows a garden, but pretty much everyone who does, grows tomatoes. There is a variety to suit just about every climate, condition and taste, and the biggest problem you may face is trying to decide which ones.
Contra Costa Master Gardener Janet Miller offers her tips on growing tomatoes, which should give you the best chance of having a successful harvest.
Know your tomato In addition to picking your favorite varieties, you should know whether the tomato is determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow to an established size, usually 3 to 5 feet tall, and bears fruit for four to six weeks. After that, the tomato starts to die back. These are great for container gardening. Indeterminates will continue to grow and produce fruit all summer until killed by frost or disease. The plants get really big, so make sure you have enough room for them.
What one to grow Pick varieties best suited to your microclimate and space requirements. Tomatoes generally need heat to develop well, but there are varieties that will grow in the cooler, coastal areas.
When to plant It's tempting to set tomatoes out now that it's getting warm, but tomatoes don't like nighttime temperatures that dip below 50 degrees. And even though the days may be hot, the ground temperature may be too cool. The rule of thumb is to play it safe and don't plant until after May 1. Already bought your seedlings? No problem. Take the plants from those 4-inch pots and transplant them into gallon containers. When it's time to plant in the ground, the seedlings will already have developed a good root system. Set the pots outside, in a protected area, and keep an eye on them to make sure they don't dry out or are bothered by pests.
Where to plant Tomatoes are vigorous growers that require maximum sun. They will need 6 to 8 hours of sun a day, so plant in the sunniest parts of your garden. If you don't have enough sun, you have options. Smaller, determinate patio tomatoes will do well in 4 to 6 hours of sun, and cherry tomato varieties can grow with even less sun. The bigger the tomato, the more sun is needed, so go for smaller varieties if sunshine is an issue.
If you grew tomatoes, eggplants, peppers or potatoes in a bed, don't grow the same crops there this year. Practice a three-year crop rotation to avoid the buildup of pathogens in the soil.
What to grow them in You can grow tomatoes in the ground or in containers. Just make sure there is plenty of room for the plant to grow. For healthy plants, add several inches of aged organic matter to your soil each year to improve plant nutrition and foster moisture retention. Dig humus, compost or well composted manure into the top 12 inches of soil and allow it to sit for a least a week before planting.
Support your local tomato Tomatoes are a vining plant that can get big and unwieldy. Stake the plant and then add a strong support -- such as a trellis or cage -- to keep the plant upright and the fruit off the ground.
Water me Keep the soil moist around new plants for the first three to four weeks. After that, water plants when the top 2 to 3 inches of the soil is dry. Establish a regular routine for watering. Irregular watering will inhibit growth and can lead to blossom end rot and cracking.
Feed me You won't need to fertilize your tomatoes again until they bloom and start setting fruit. Fertilize with nitrogen every four to six weeks, if needed, and with a low-nitrogen fertilizer weekly. Don't over-fertilize, especially with nitrogen. Too much nitrogen produces wonderful, leafy plants, but no fruit, and the nitrogen not taken up by the plant can run off and end up in the Bay.
Secret, surefire planting recipe Unlike peppers, eggplants and most other vegetables, tomatoes benefit from being planted deep. Trim off the lower leaves on the plant, leaving the top third in place.
Dig a hole deep enough to bury the plant all the way to those top leaves. Roots will develop where the leaves had been, creating a strong root system that will support a robust, thriving plant. Before planting, toss a handful of organic vegetable fertilizer, a handful of bone mean, a handful of worm castings, a couple of pulverized egg shells, and two to three aspirins into the hole. You also can add a fish head, if you've got one. Cover the additives with a bit of soil and pop in the plant. Repeat for each tomato plant. Fill in the hole, burying the plant so only the top is above ground, and create a water well around the base of the plant. Water well and wait for the magic.
Two aspirin keeps tomatoes in the pink.
Our Garden offers free gardening classes 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Wednesday, from now through October. The garden is located at Wiget Lane and Shadelands Drive in Walnut Creek. Master Gardeners are available to answer your questions and diagnose disease and pests, and there is a wide variety of plants for sale.
Next time in the Garden: Reducing water use, with East Bay Municipal Utility District.