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5 Tips that could save your tomato season!

Sure, when you’re a farmer there are many things you must attend to in a given growing season – even when everything goes right!

But there are 5 key things that can get you off on the right foot or inevitably ensure a successful season in the tomato garden:

Ojai tomato field on it's way, 2014.

Move the garden!
Planting in the same spot each season invites problems. Bugs that like tomatoes and diseases that affect them may also be set up in your chosen garden area. Outsmart the bad guys by practicing rotation planting. Maybe you can plant in containers this year? Good farmers know this is a must each season. Amend liberally in your new spot to get the garden in gear.

Develop a Strategy
Yes, a strategy. What do you want to eat? What will the kids eat? When do you want to harvest? Can’t deal with a huge plant? All this can be dealt with as you choose seedlings. Pay attention to the label and know what all those instructions and guides mean!

Do you want an heirloom or a hybrid? “Days to Maturity” helps you chart your harvests, so when do you want to pick? A Determinate plant is shorter, stockier and produces more or less at one time. Indeterminate plants are larger and they produce more regularly throughout the summer. Which is right for you?

Dig Deep
Tomato roots run deep, so get that started when you plant. Dig a deep hole! Take off the lowest leaves and plant deeply in a well-amended planting hole (yes, even some of the stem!) leaving only 3-4 inches of the plant above the surface. Take off leaves that will be buried. Stem portions that are buried will root quickly and strengthen your seedling.

Water and Feed Wisely
Soak every 3, 4 or 5 days for the first few weeks, depending on your soil type, as it’s not super hot yet! Watch your seedlings and give them only what they need; water deeply and infrequently! As the season progresses the plant will inevitably yellow in places…more water won’t fix that. Avoid watering too much. Too much water dilutes taste.

Pick and use your crop when the fruit is actually RIPE!
Sounds simple enough but we do mess this up. When is a black tomato ripe? You must know that the fruit is colored up and softening – that’s when it’s right. Cherry tomatoes are the hardest to predict. Wait until they practically fall into your hand!

Get to it!

No Elephants, but the Circus IS in Town

I always did want to run away with the circus. I think it was the horse acts that most tempted me. In a way I really have.

This week our events begin in Southern California. Early for most of the country of course, but for us it’s truly been a subtle winter at best. My one rescue seedling that’s forged through the cooler months has done quite well through the last bit, though ill-timed and certainly not impressive. Yet.

And no, I don’t recommend a November planting, this just seemed, well, right.

But I digress. It’s event season, that time when dinner parties and birthdays, last minute trips and leisurely afternoons in the garden are out of the question – or more likely postponed until “after Tomatomania”! I guess I should make AT a thing.

And in their place we run around the state with fantastic tomato seedlings, greeting enthusiastic gardeners all over CA who share our zeal for that new dwarf tomato plant that offers great color and production, or the strongest tomato cage, or the newest and best tomato book on the market. (I do hope they’ll be after that one!)

I run down our extensive list and wonder if folks will rally round Sweethearts, a wonderful cherry/grape find of last season or opt for First Mate, Marz Round Green, Siletz, Lavender Lady or Captain Lucky. Yes, tomatoes all, each with a different twist that will excite and entertain us through the summer.

It’s a wonderful time for us and we hope for you too. I’m so grateful to the many people who prop me/us up and make it all go as it should and to all those (you) gardeners who inspire us each season.

Sorry we can’t provide elephants but will a new selection called Giant Buffalo Heart do?

Seedlings at Cornerstone Sonoma

When is early too early?

So it’s getting to be tomato season. Finally.

Mother Nature starts the season in my Ojai garden...

As the calendar days tick away and we feel the season arrive it gets harder and harder not to run out to the nursery and start the garden in earnest. Right? Sometimes we can ignore that urgency but other times we just can’t resist.

If your season is teasing you a few weeks too early (Gulf Coast ‘Maniacs you know what I’m talking about – freezing temps interrupt spring urges right?) and temperatures seem to be pointing toward the ground where your tomato garden will go, you have a choice to make. You can plant an “early” tomato, sure, but planting a short season variety like Stupice, Siberian or Oregon Spring doesn’t ensure that this plant will do any better than others when temperatures take a dangerous dip.

Parts of the south and southwest are feeling the season advance now. If you live in the Midwest? New England? Don’t even think about it unless you have an industrial-strength greenhouse or very reliable cold frame. And even then you have a while to go. Start your seedlings inside 6-8 weeks before your last predicted frost date.

Where the season is imminent you’d be well advised to use these last frosty days to start thinking about compost and conditioning soils rather than planting. However, if you do jump ahead and put any plants in the ground make sure you’re armed with plastic or cover of some kind. Or grow in containers that you can move when they need protection!

If you’re the kind of tomatomaniac who plants over 50 plants, protecting those babies during the early part of the season can be a real trial. It will test you but you can do it. If you are planting a couple seedlings behind the house just to get your season on that should be pretty easy to protect. Be creative! I have friends who drape plastic over clotheslines or unused swingsets to make terrific temporary greenhouses.

A tomato cage or tower becomes a support for plastic or other cover.

So here’s a story I heard some years ago. A gardener in Sonoma, (Northern California), rumored to grow the greatest tomatoes around, started all his seedlings on Christmas Eve. (The season there truly begins in mid to late April) 6 to 7 weeks later, in early February, he planted those seedlings out in the garden. Now, he didn’t just plant those out like most of us would, he used a post hole digger to dig 3’ deep holes, then planted seedlings in 6 inches of compost at the bottom of the hole. Using plastic laid right across the surface of the ground he created a greenhouse effect to urge the seedlings along. Given the soil in this region at this time of the season is warmer than the air, the seedlings prospered and as they grew he filled that hole, covering the stem as the plant grew. By the time the growing season really arrived the seedlings were visible above the ground level, with 2 to 2 1/2 feet of amazing, sturdy root growth already supporting them. Longer days and higher temps urged strong fast top growth, resulting in the earliest and best tomatoes anyone had ever seen.

I’ve threatened to try this for years. Never have. Maybe you’ll give it s shot?

It’s all about a good start. So if you want to try planting early as you see last year’s “volunteers” begin to pop up in the veggie garden, make sure your soil is perfect, make sure you can protect those seedlings and maybe, try a whole new kind of growing process. Good luck.

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