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The Capricious Art of Growing Tomatoes in the PNW

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Lorene Edwards Forkner

Perhaps no other single vegetable unites all taste buds like the flavor of a fully ripe juicy tomato. Hope springs eternal as we set out young plants in cold, wet spring weather. As conditions warm the heady scent of the green foliage is intoxicating and we’re positively giddy when the first starry yellow blossoms appear. But by midsummer the race is on and the agonizing wait for harvest heats up. Yep, we are passionate about the “love apple,” which may explain the sometimes obsessive lengths most of us will go to cultivate this sometimes frustrating backyard crop.

Tomatoes are members of the nightshade (yes, as in “deadly”) family, Solanaceae, which includes potatoes, eggplants, and peppers. Actually perennial, tomatoes are native to the tropics where they yield continuously for several years before exhausting the soil and losing their vigor. Epcot Center in Florida’s Disney world is home to the country’s one and only “Tomato Tree.”  Housed in a custom-built greenhouse, the vine took several years to gain its tremendous size and holds a Guinness World Record for producing 32,000 tomatoes in a single year! (See: passionate and obsessive above—they call it “horti-tainment”.)

Cultivation is somewhat different here in the chilly Northwest and it pays to have some tricks up our collective sleeves to ensure our success with this shivering tropical transplant.

Choosing plants

It can be sometimes confusing to pick which varieties to grow when selecting from a staggeringly varied menu of delectable choices. Do you want grape-like trusses of tiny jeweled fruit or large beefy two and three pounders? Opt for a red, black, purple, yellow, green, orange or pink crop further categorized into cherry, beefsteak, paste, or salad type fruit and heirloom or hybrid, determinate or indeterminate plants. Here then, is a brief tomato vocabulary to assist you in your choices:

Determinate  Short, bush-type plants that grow to a certain size and stop; they set all their fruit at once

Indeterminate  Tall, vining plants that continuously grow and produce fruit throughout the season.

Heirloom  With exceptional flavor, rich color, and heady aroma, non-hybrid heirloom tomatoes have been grown for generations.

Cherry  Small, very sweet fruits ripen prolifically in clusters—a time honored favorite for snacking in the garden.

Beefsteak  Large, sometimes huge fruits that need a longer growing season to ripen fully and are best suited to cultivation in areas with hot summers.

Salad or Slicing  A good choice for NW growers, palm-sized fruits are quicker to mature yet slice up juicy and flavorful like its larger beefsteak cousin.

Paste  A lower water content makes this richly flavored type superior for preserving and sauce making.

When it comes to color, let yourself play. Nothing is prettier or more delicious than a huge platter of sliced tomatoes in a rainbow of colors layered with fresh basil and drizzled with olive oil topped with a dusting of sea salt. Generally speaking, yellow and green tomatoes are less acid and have a mild flavor while I think the black and purple fruits have an almost smoky flavor, (granted they look like a bruise and are best served with other colorful varieties to balance their, uh, injured appearance). One of my favorite discoveries is a variety called ‘Garden Peach’. The salad sized yellow fruit blushed with orange actually does resemble a peach, even down to its somewhat fuzzy skin(!) and the delicious mouthwatering fruity flavor makes this a delicious oddity well worth growing.

Planting & Care

Tomato transplants should not be set out unprotected until nighttime temperatures stay above 50° F. Especially after this year’s cold spring, June is not too late to get plants in the ground. Select a location that receives as much sun and heat as your garden affords. Short season varieties that ripen in cooler climates have been developed and are good insurance against our occasional non-summer. Pinch off the leaves from the bottom third of the main stalk and plant deeply—up to the remaining leaves. Roots will grow from the part of the stalk that is now underground, making a very sturdy plant with a generous root system.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and benefit from a side dressing of a balanced organic fertilizer when setting out in the garden to encourage abundant vegetative growth for the first five to six weeks before getting down to the business of flowering and setting fruit. Avoid purchasing small plants already in flower; the larger and more established the plant is when it begins to flower and fruit the greater the overall yield. Look for a stocky plant with healthy green leaves and a sturdy stem.

Staking the vines promotes good air circulation and keeps slugs and snails from damaging the crop. Anything that trains the plants up off the ground can be fashioned and any number of cages, twirly metal poles and other contraptions are available at nurseries. Staking also allows for much closer spacing of the plants, a bonus when it comes to city-sized gardens.

 Tomatoes adapt well to infrequent watering. On all but the most sandy soils, a thick mulch applied in June once the weather has warmed will allow most plants to grow with little or no additional irrigation until August when soils really start to dry out. On the other hand, plants ripen their fruit more quickly in response to water stress and many gardeners deliberately choose to cut off all irrigation in early August to hasten the process. Discourage further flowering and fruit set after September 1st by pruning the tops of the vines to focus energy back into ripening the existing fruit.

So there you have it—with good soil, healthy plants, proper care (and some luck!) you’ll soon be delighting in one of summer’s most succulent crops.

Lorene Edwards Forkner is a freelance writer and garden designer with five tomatoes huddled under plastic raincoats waiting for summer. Follow her tomato successes and failures at Plantedathome.com.

 

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