The first week of June is “tomato time.” It is also the first week to think about setting pepper and other heat-loving plants out into the garden.
The weather has been cool and fickle, but there has been an increased interest in growing more vegetables and herbs by home gardeners. The high cost of food has made it economically practical to put some time into tomatoes and other vegetables, not just for the higher quality but for the money-saving benefits as well. Older gardeners who remember the almost-lost art of freezing and canning are pleasantly surprised that young families are showing an interest in preserving their garden produce in an effort to curb the food bill.
The most important tip for growing tomatoes in our area is to pick the right varieties for our cool summer climate. There are two types of tomato plants the more compact determinate varieties and the big sprawling indeterminate tomatoes.
The compact, determinate varieties will set and ripen fruit much sooner in the summer. These are the classic cherry tomatoes (Sweet 100, Sweet Million), the golden pear tomatoes or anything sold as a pot or patio tomato. For medium to large fruit on a compact plant look for “Oregon spring,” with a full tomato flavor and almost seedless fruit, and “legend,” which is a compact grower that has the most resistance to the late blight fungus.
Tomato-lovers also will want to make room for the bigger, sprawling but more prolific indeterminate varieties. “stupice” is the name of an extremely early and cold-determinate tomato that bears very flavorful fruit in as little as 52 days from planting. “Early girl” is the most popular indeterminate variety in Western Washington, but new varieties like “jetsetter” and “Matina” may be worth a try if you can find already-started transplants. Give any variety a try if the tag says it will ripen within 70 days. By this time of year it is just too late to grow tomatoes from seed.
So what are the five secrets of successful tomato growing in Western Washington?
1. Give them a sunny spot. The hotter the better. The best harvest will be from plants that grow next to a white-painted wall (more reflected light) facing south, or west under the eaves of an overhanging roof so they will be out of the rain.
2. Harden off your plants before planting. Young tomato plants that go from greenhouse to garden will be shocked at the cold nights. This means they will sit and pout for a week or two. Always let your newly purchased tomato plants get used to the wind, sun and rain gradually. Put the plants outdoors during the day but bring them indoors at night. Transplants that have been hardened off for a week before planting into the garden are much more resistant to flea beetles, the tiny hopping insects that make holes all over tomato leaves.
3. Provide consistent water. If you let tomato plants dry out and then flood them with water they suffer from blackened end rot and also curling leaves. Adding a bit of lime to the soil at planting time helps to prevent this condition, but consistent watering is key.
4. Use a complete fertilizer. This means one with nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. Miracle-Gro, Rapid-Gro, Osmocote or an organic plant food that has all three of the major nutrients (also called NPK) will all make a big difference in your tomato harvest , but you can’t guess on the amount to fertilize. You really have to read and follow the label directions as all fertilizers have different concentrations with specific instructions for their use.
5. Bury your plants when you set them out. Unlike most vegetables, tomatoes will make roots all along their stem as long as it is covered with soil. So dig a deep hole and remove the leaves from the bottom half of the plant. The buried stem will grow a bigger root system and support more fruit. You can also dig a trench and lay the plants on their side with just the top poking above ground level.