03 February, 2018

Tomatoes The Gateway Drug to Gardening

Two really ripe cherry tomatoes and two getting ripe with a bunch of green tomatoes.

These pages comprise my notes for my February 3rd class, "Tomatoes, The Gateway Drug to Gardening.  While this does contain a lot of data, it certainly misses most of the off-the-wall impromptu humor that naturally happens whenever I open my mouth.



Caring For Tomatoes

  • Tomatoes are a warm weather crop. Usually setting them out in Southern California about tax day (April 15th) is a good bet.
  • Tomatoes prefer about 6 to 8 hours of sun to bring out their best flavors. You can cheat if you have a white wall that will reflect light – and heat – back to them, but too little light will result in weak and non-productive plants.
  • You will need to stake, trellis, or cage, and sometimes all three, your tomato plants to keep them off the ground. Have your support system ready when planting the tomatoes – waiting is guaranteed to see the tomatoes 6 feet long before you find yourself trying to coral those vines desperately into cages they refuse to go into. Save yourself (and the plants!) the grief!
  • Give each plant enough room to grow. Space “robust,” (along with “vigorous” these are code words for “tomato plants on steroids” - take these terms seriously) long-vined, indeterminate varieties about 3 feet apart. Stockier determinate plants can be grown 2 feet apart. Growing in containers, you’ll need at least a 36 to 48 inch pot for an indeterminate variety, or a 24 inch pot for a determinate variety. And stakes. And twine.
  • At the same time, lay 3 to 4 inches of compost on top of the soil which will provide minor nutrients and help hold moisture in the soil, keeping the moisture tomatoes love.
  • To grow a really strong tomato plant, bury two-thirds of the stem when planting. This will allow the plant to sprout roots along the buried stem, making your plant will be stronger and better able to find water in a drought. Please note that this deep-planting method only works with tomatoes (and tomatillos). Another note; if you are putting tomatoes into soil that has not yet warmed, lay the stem sideways under the soil surface in order to not go deep into the colder soil. Tomatoes planted in cool soil will never forgive you and will perform worse than tomatoes planted two weeks late in warmer soil.
  • Do not use Nitrogen fertilizer on your tomatoes! The plants will be bright green and lush but will not produce fruit until the N is burnt up. I don't know why, it just is. I tend to not use fertilizer at all, just copious amounts of compost. Most of our soils are loaded with enough nutrients to grow healthy plants, except N, which tomatoes don't need. Do not plant tomatoes in an area that grew beans or bean family crops last year, the Nitrogen they produce in the soil will still be present.
  • Immediately after planting, water seedlings to help settle them in.

  • You can combine fast-maturing varieties with special season-stretching techniques to grow an early crop – you will have tomatoes coming in much more regularly and the variety IS the spice of life.
  • Cover the ground with 2 to 4 inches of mulch to minimize weeds and help keep the soil evenly moist. Straw and shredded leaves make great mulches for tomatoes.
  • Water regularly, aiming for at least an inch of moisture per week (through rain or watering), more in the summertime. Even more during the Santa Ana winds. Keep your eye on your plants whenever you go out to pick. Irregular watering is one of the causes of blossom end rot, a fungus that ruins tomato fruit by rotting from the far side of the tomato (where the flower once was) and turning your fruit to an unappetizing mush.
  • Plant a variety of tomatoes, for different colors, different tastes, but more importantly to allow for different harvesting days. It does not hurt to plant more seeds in June/July for a fall crop. Sometimes this close to the ocean we get a better tomato harvest off the later plants. May's Malaise and June Gloom can be deadly to tomatoes.

Tomato Varieties
Tomato varieties can be divided into categories based on shape and size. Some of the more popular of these are:

  • Beefsteak tomatoes are 4” or more in diameter, often sliced for sandwiches and similar applications. They may weigh in at over a pound or more. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical. But their flavor is usually among the most “tomatoey” of all varieties. These are often the “heirloom” tomatoes prized for that taste. Beefsteak tomatoes are the largest tomatoes and will not reliably produce a crop close to the coast. They need a constant 85ยบ day and night to set fruit. Because of our ocean influence, we rarely meet that condition and so production of beefsteak tomatoes can be scarce.
  • Slicing tomatoes are the ones often found in markets – not as large as the beefsteak tomato, but weighing in from 6 to 12 ounces, these round fruits are the common tomato to be sliced into salads or topping of tacos. Most tomatoes consumed in the US are slicing tomatoes and they will set fruit easily in our climate.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce and paste, for canning and sauces and are usually oblong 3–4” long and 1½ – 2” diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes, important cultivars in making tomato sauces – the famed San Marzano tomato is one of these. Other tomatoes, round like fresh eating tomatoes may be used for sauces, like the Burbank Slicer which doubles nicely for a paste tomato as well.
  • Cherry tomatoes are small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same ½ – 1”, same size as the wild tomato. Cherry tomatoes will set fruit the easiest and most prolific. I have always maintained that one eats cherry tomatoes only in the garden, you plant them to keep the gardener working and do not serve them because they are notoriously fork-adverse, slipping from one plate to another person's eyeball. Leave them in the garden or serve them presliced.

Determinate vs Indeterminate

Another classification of tomatoes is according to their growth habit. Most tomatoes are “Indeterminate.” Left alone, they will continue to grow longer and longer vines until stopped by cold weather or lack of water. Lack of things to climb on does not figure. The good news is that all the continuous growth will produce more tomatoes. With Indeterminate tomatoes, you get tomatoes over a long period of time.

Determinate tomatoes on the other hand, grow to their full height – usually about 3 feet – and stop. They flower and then all the fruits that plant will produce, will be produced in one flush and the plant dies. This is great for folks who wish to can tomatoes or tomato juice. If one is planting a determinate tomato only and wants tomatoes through the summer, a second and third planting will be required. Determinate tomatoes are the best for container and balcony growing.

Common Tomato Pests and Diseases

Some common tomato pests are stink bugs, cutworms, tomato hornworms and tobacco hornworms, aphids, cabbage loopers, whiteflies, tomato fruitworms, flea beetles, red spider mite, slugs, and Colorado potato beetles. The tomato russet mite, Aculops lycopersici, feeds on foliage and young fruit of tomato plants, causing shriveling and necrosis of leaves, flowers, and fruit, possibly killing the plant.

A common tomato disease is tobacco mosaic virus. Handling cigarettes and other infected tobacco products can transmit the virus to tomato plants.


A common condition is Blossom End Rot caused by indifferent water. Tomatoes, while not being a water hog, need consistent watering. Watering too little followed by compensative overwatering will create fruits that rot from the blossom end destroying the palatability of the fruit.

Tomato seeds offered at the class, were presented as follows: 

*Limited Supply refers to the amount of seed I had of each at the class.  Students were asked to confine themselves to only one of the "limited supply" varieties. 

Variety
D/I
Limited supply*
Description
All days to ripeness are from transplant!
Company
Amish Paste

Yes
Acquired from the Amish near Lancaster, PN. Bright red 8-12 ounce fruits. Juicy flesh – top notch for sauce and fresh eating. One of Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste varieties. 85 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Black Krim
I

Russian tomato with deep red and green color. 8 ounce fruits with a deep, salty flavor. All the “Black” tomatoes have thin skins and can be a chore to harvest wnen fully ripe, but they are worth the hassle. Also a good container tomato, 80 days
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Burbank
D

A small heirloom slicer that can be used for paste as well. Developed by Luther Burbank,  3-4 inch fruit. The fruit has a very deep red color and a traditional tomato flavor. About 8 ounce fruit – great for containers!! 75 days One of David's favorites!
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Chocolate Cherry
I
Yes
Purplish-red 1” cherry tomatoes are sweet and are good for snacking (isn't that why we like cherry tomatoes?) Prolific vines bear trusses of 6 to 8 fruits at a whack. About 70 days.
Botanical Interests
David Davidson
I
Yes
Mid-size orange glove tomatoes in clusters o up to 7fruits. Great flavoer hinting of citrus. Keeps well. 90 days.
Seed Savers Exchange
Djena Lee's Gold Girl
I

Golden-orange fruits. 8 oz fruits. Delicious flavor, rich balance of sweetness and tanginess. 80 days
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Eva Purple Ball
I

Heirloom from Germany, 78 days, cherry red, 4 to 5 ounces, smooth round fruits
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Gold Medal
I
Yes
“The sweetest tomato you ever tasted.” An orangish-yellow with streaks of red, a wonderful bi-color tomato weighing more than 1 pound! Not good at the coast!! 75-90 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Illini Gold
I

4-6 oz bright yellow/orange paste-type tomatoes – 75 days; makes a sweet golden tomato sauce!
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Moneymaker
I

Meaty fruits full of flavor and prolific production made this one of the best commercial tomatoes in years past. Prefers hot (and humid) summers. 75 to 80 days
Botanical Interests
Nebraska Wedding
D
Yes
Reliable producer of stunning 4” round fruits with glowing orange skin. Well-balanced flavor. @ 36” tall – still need some staking. 85 to 90 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Paul Robeson
I
Yes
Russian variety popular amoung tomato connoisseurs named for a famous Russian opera singer. Dusky brick red 6 to 12 ounces, nice acid/sweet balance, 80-90 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Red Zebra
I
Yes
Gorgeous 2½” round fruits, blood-red overlaid with jagged carrot-orange stripes. Very productive, slightly tart. 75 – 80 days.
Seed Savers Exchange
Rutgers
½ D
Yes
Rutgers University released this new “retro” variety to try to get back to the original “Jersey tomato” qualities of flavor, juiciness, texture, vigor, and all the other good stuff. Red round medium fruits. A tasty tomato bred for home gardeners 75 days @ 6 to 8 ounces
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Rutgers (the original)
D

Strong and vigorous vines, bear bright red 6 to 8 ounce fruits with excellent flavor – this is the tomato my grandfather planted year in and year out. Also good for sauce. A great all-purpose tomato. 75 days
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Siletz
D

75 days and will set fruit in cool and wet weather! 9-12 oz fruits for slices, Prolific. 75 days
Lake Valley Seed
Sungold Cherry
I
Yes!
Just a few seeds! Tangerine colored fruits are among the best tasting cherry tomatoes in the world. The only hybrid in this list! 57 days
Botanical Interests
Sweetie Cherry
I

A well known tomato for it's strong tomato flavor. Smaller cherries (¾ to 1”) still have a great taste and are produced in clusters. Vigorous vines. 65 days
Botanical Interests
Trophy
I
Yes
Introduced in 1870, sold at that time for $5/pkt (equal to today's $80!) sweet 5 to 7 ounce tomatoes ideal for slicing. 80 days
Seed Savers Exchange
Valencia
I

Heirloom producing large orange 8 – 10 ounce fruits – firm with few seeds. Vigorous plant needs staking, A Slow Food USA selection. 75 days
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
White Cherry
I

Like eating candy. Can be grown in containers, Early fruiting 70 days – 1 ounce fruits.
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Yellow Bell
I

Roma shaped yellow fruits, Great yellow sauce tomato for salads or for making lovely tomato paste, juice, preserves, salsa, and yellow catsup!  Survives cool wet conditions better than other sauce tomatoes. 60 days
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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