By Gary Jones
Tomatoes are, by far, the most popular homegrown vegetable, although they are really a fruit.
Their pervasiveness is not surprising for obvious reasons: they are very easy to grow, making them perfect for gardeners of any skill level. The flavor of a backyard tomato is sensationally better than one that is store-bought.
Whether you are a tomato newbie or a self-described tomato maniac, there is always a new variety or tomato growing tactic to try. The arrival of spring makes now the perfect time to start.
Here are some juicy insider tips about tomatoes, gleaned from years of personally growing both heirlooms and hybrids as well as listening to customers.
Soil – All vegetables produce a lot of foliage and fruit in a short time. It is only reasonable that if the soil feeds the plant, then you should maximize the soil. Do this by amending it very well to conserve water, improve texture and increase nutrient availability. Incorporate an organic starter fertilizer for best results.
Container size – Size is important in container gardening. Most people tend to grow tomatoes in a pot that is too small. A 15-gallon nursery pot is the right size. Too-small containers cause the watering to be uneven, which can lead to other growing problems.
Watering – Tomatoes need a consistent supply of moisture and will suffer if you let them get too dry before watering. Using organic mulch to keep the soil evenly moist is an effective tactic.
Blossom-end rot – Uneven watering leads to insufficient calcium and eventually blossom-end rot. This happens when the bottom of the tomato develops a dark brown patch, which begins to rot. Lack of calcium is the cause. The plants do not need more calcium, but rather a consistent supply of moisture. There is plenty of calcium in California soils, but plants can only take in calcium through water.
Feeding – Tomatoes are not heavy feeders. If you feed too often, even with a food designed specifically for tomatoes, you will end up with lush, beautiful plants and little fruit. A light feeding every other month is sufficient.
Heirloom or hybrid – Which is the best for your garden and tomato goals? One of the ways to distinguish between the two, is that hybrids have been bred for disease-resistance. In California, we have an ideal tomato-growing climate and heirlooms rarely get disease. There is no question that heirlooms are not as productive, so growing both is recommended. Grow heirlooms for their incredible variety of flavor, shape and color, and hybrids for production.
Tomato flavors – There are many tomato flavors. Some, like the purples and blacks, taste rich and smoky. Some come already salted like the Black Krim. Others range from a rich, fruity wine taste to some that are super sweet like the yellows and oranges. Sun Gold wins every cherry tomato taste test.
Beefsteaks – Beefsteaks are everyone’s dream tomato because they are large, juicy and perfect for eating right off the vine. But inland gardeners beware: beefsteaks produce little fruit when temperatures are above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If you only want a few spectacular tomatoes early in the season, grow them. Otherwise, choose from a large selection of other varieties. Coastal gardeners can grow beefsteaks much easier due to lower temperatures.
Pinching or pruning – There is no need to pinch or prune your tomato plants. The technique for removing side shoots was developed in cold-summer, European climates. Removing most of the foliage made it possible for the sun to reach and warm the entire plant. Luckily, we have plenty of heat and sun in California for tomatoes to produce beautifully, naturally and without any pinching or pruning. If you do use these tactics, your fruit may get sunscald.
Don’t refrigerate – Keep tomatoes at room temperature. Cold temperatures turn the sugars to starch, ruining the homegrown flavor.
If you are a seasoned tomato grower or just want to try your hand at something new, consider hot peppers or strawberries. Imagine how bountiful your summer meals will be with the addition of fresh-picked tomatoes, hot peppers and strawberries?
A new trend this spring is growing GMO-free (genetically modified organism) hot peppers. If you want to spice up your garden, try growing some of the world’s hottest hot peppers like Carolina Reaper, Habanero Yellow, Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper), Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Scorpion 7 Pot and Red Savina. They should be grown in full sun and take 70-to-90 days to mature.
Strawberries are the perfect summer treat and can be grown in both garden beds or containers, depending on your available space. When you purchase strawberry plants, plant them into the ground or container immediately. Leaving them in the store-bought pot for too long can cause them to become root-bound.
—Gary Jones is the Chief Horticulturist at Armstrong Garden Centers, which has locations on Friars Road and Morena Boulevard among others. For any tomato or other growing questions, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.