By Peggy Acott
Tomatoes are the Holy Grail for home vegetable gardeners. After tasting what fresh tomatoes can really be like, and then paying the hefty price of large heirloom beauties at the Farmer’s Market, the desire to have fresh tomatoes outside one’s own back door is a siren’s call almost impossible to ignore.
It is a precarious dance, to plant early enough for them to take advantage of what summer heat we have and turn red before temperatures start to drop during cool nights – but not so early that they are stunted and struggle to survive.
Fried green tomatoes are delicious, it’s true, but there is nothing like a sun-warmed, fully-ripened tomato right off the vine.
Only now (or maybe more correctly, by the middle to even late May) can you safely plant tomatoes out in your garden without protection. Tomatoes are the most hardy of the summer vegetables as it is still nearly a month too early to put out peppers and eggplants without some sort of insulating cover.
Nighttime temperatures have to be consistently above fifty-five degrees for tomato plants to grow and thrive. Otherwise, you may get stunted and weak plants, and might not realize until mid-June or later, by which time you’ll be really late if you have to re-plant.
Planting short-season (fewer days to maturity) varieties, and those hybrids developed by Oregon State University known to grow well in our area, improve the chance of a successful harvest. Early Girl, Oregon Spring, Stupice, Sungold and Green Zebra are just a few examples.
One suggestion is to plant one of these “tried and true” varieties and also plant others that intrigue you, like “Taxi”, “Cherokee Purple” or “Hawaiian Pineapple”.
Get a jump on the season with a plastic row cover or wall-o-water enclosures (or both) to help raise soil temperatures enough to keep your plants going and growing until it’s warm enough outside for them to continue on their own.
Red plastic mulch warms the soil, and the reflected red color has proven to enhance ripening of the fruit. Protection can be kept in place into the growing season. The wall-o-water should be removed before the plant gets so large that wrestling it over the plant becomes a huge challenge, and the row cover should be taken off before plants hit the protective ceiling. The red mulch can stay in place all season.
Be sure you plant tomatoes where they are going to get full sun – if there is a spot where they can also have reflected heat from a building, wall or fence, all the better.
Make sure the soil is amended with good quality compost (an approximate 2/3 existing soil to 1/3 compost at most), also adding pumice if you’re starting out with very heavy clay will help to optimize drainage.
Include lime or bone meal in the bottom of the planting hole to help neutralize the soil and provide some calcium to the growing plant, to help prevent blossom end rot later on. It is also good to provide nourishment in the form of vegetable fertilizer when growth has slowed and the tomatoes start to appear.
A good, balanced organic fertilizer recipe for tomatoes (and vegetables in general) that you can make yourself can be found in the Tomato Tips brochure from Portland Nursery that comes by way of Steve Solomon (Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades – one of the best vegetable growing books out there):
4 parts seed meal or fishmeal
1 part dolomite lime
1 part rock phosphate or bone meal
1 part kelp meal
Tomatoes need regular, consistent watering – deeply and less frequently (once or twice per week) is better than a brief sprinkle every day. Tomatoes have long taproots and encouraging them to go down into the soil for water will make for a stronger, more self-sufficient, more disease-resistant plant.
Adding a mulch of additional compost will help hold in moisture and keep your tomato plant hydrated and healthy. If you put down a red plastic mulch before you planted then you’ve already done your work here.
Staking, trellising or providing a supportive tomato cage or other structure is also essential.
A word of advice: be sure to put the support into place before the plant gets too big and unwieldy.
Don’t have a lot of ground? Tomatoes can also be successfully grown in 5-to-15 gallon containers. Determinate types are most suited for container-growing, and containers tend to need more frequent watering, but it can help increase your growing area or enable you to put your tomato where the most sun is, even if it happens to be on a deck or driveway.
See the Portland Nursery website (www.portlandnursery.com) for more information and a downloadable copy of the Tomato Tips (and other vegetable gardening) brochure. Stop in at one of the locations to learn more about tomatoes.
There will be more than two hundred varieties available this season along with all the other vegetables that can be planted now.