If I could successfully grow one vegetable every summer in my garden, it would be tomatoes. Forget the eggplant, corn and celery. Just let me pick warm, sun-ripened tomatoes off the vine as early as possible and as late as they can hang in there, and I’m a happy planter. After dropping in on the Tomatomania event at Roger’s Gardens Sunday morning, I know I’m not alone. Hundreds of tomato lovers swarmed what claims to be the world’s largest tomato seedling sale—about 150 varieties. I heard even larger throngs showed up Saturday, scooping up several thousands of hybrid and heirloom seedlings.
Besides our prized tomato plants, we were all after one other fundamental ingredient to bountiful tomatoes: magic growing tips! Scott Daigre, the owner/producer of Tomatomania, told the crowd during his Sunday morning talk that one of the biggest mistakes gardeners make with tomatoes is over-watering. “The plant gets too happy, and grow and grows, is too big and too green, and there’s no fruit,” he said. The key, he said, is to water less frequently, but longer— especially if you live along the coast. Over-watered tomatoes are not just less productive, but the flavor can be diluted.
The other most common mistake, he said, is over-fertilizing. Just fertilize generously when you plant the tomato, and then again when it blooms. “Don’t over-coddle them,” he said, adding that his favorite brand is Dr. Earth (which is available at Roger’s).
Here are some other hot tomato tips from Scott:
• Plant seedlings so that no more than 3-4 inches of the plant is above the soil—yes, even some of the stem. You want the roots deep.
• Tomato plants love heat, but the roots do not. Keep roots cool by covering with mulch. Scott is not a fan of plastic coverings. • For the best yields, pick tomato plants that produce fruit no larger than a baseball and “early” varieties. Cherries are the easiest.
• The best time to water tomatoes is in the morning, so they have time to dry during the day, which fends off fungi.
• Growing tomatoes in containers has different rules: water almost daily and fertilize more often. And stick to smaller tomatoes. (Roger’s was selling his favorite container, a gray tomato pot made of paper-mulch for about $24.) • Don’t crowd the plants, spacing them with three- to six-foot centers.
• Most tomatoes need at least 8 hours of sun (6 hours minimum) for strong production.
• Plant in succession (every couple weeks or more) to hedge against weather shifts.
• Some of his fool-hardy favorites: Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Sun Gold, Stupice, Fourth of July, Valencia and Crème Brulee.
• Plant after the last “freeze,” or after there have been five consecutive nights above 55 degrees. In other words, if you live in the area, NOW!
Janine Robinson is an Orange County freelance writer and garden blogger who writes the popular outdoor living blog, Laguna Dirt. Contact her at: J9RobinsonLB@gmail.com.