THERE’S NOTHING LIKE the flavor of a just-picked ripe and juicy tomato still warm from the sun. Which might explain why so many of us willingly coddle this sometimes-capricious backyard crop.
It’s not too late to get your tomatoes in the ground. My best advice is to purchase starts raised by local growers that know which varieties reliably produce well in relatively cool Pacific Northwest gardens.
Short-season varieties are your best (tomato) friend. Smaller fruits ripen more quickly than larger ones, which means cherry tomatoes and palm-size salad tomatoes that ripen in 55 to 70 days are always a safe bet. Then, if you’re feeling lucky, gamble on a hefty beefsteak — ‘Brandywine’ (85 days) is the gold standard. But be prepared for fewer fruits.
Shop for stocky plants with healthy green leaves and a sturdy stem. Tempting as it might be to get a jump on the harvest, resist purchasing small plants that are already flowering; the larger and more established the plant is when it begins to flower and fruit, the greater your overall yield will be.
When planting tomatoes, select a location that receives as much sun and heat as your garden affords. Ideally, tomato transplants should not be set out in the garden without protection until nighttime temperatures stay above 45-50 degrees F. Tomatoes are native to the tropics, so anything that serves to trap and retain heat will benefit your crop — unless of course it’s one of those dodgy devices filled with water that is just as apt to collapse and decapitate your plant. Been there, done that.
When planting, pinch off the leaves from the bottom third of the plant’s main stalk, and plant deeply — up to the remaining leaves. Roots will grow from the part of the stalk that is now underground to produce a sturdy plant with a generous root system. Tomatoes are heavy feeders. A side dressing of a balanced organic fertilizer at planting encourages abundant vegetative growth for the first month, before the plant gets down to the serious business of flowering and setting fruit. Remember: Bigger plants equal more tomatoes.
How you train your tomatoes will determine how closely you can space the plants. Caging tomatoes is one approach, but be sure your cages can handle large, weighty plants. I prefer to train my tomatoes to a single stake, which allows closer spacing, a bonus when it comes to city-size gardens and gluttonous gardeners.
On all but the sandiest soils, thickly mulching in June, once the weather has warmed, allows 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; many gardeners deliberately cut back on watering in early August to hasten the process. Discourage further flowering and fruit set after September by pruning the vines to focus the plant’s energy into ripening existing fruit.
Caging or staking vines to promote air circulation is also critical to avoiding disease problems. Late blight, Phytophthora infestans — also spelled HEARTBREAK — is a soil-borne fungal infection that creates dark squishy spots on your treasured plants. The disease first shows up on stems and foliage, then quickly spreads throughout the entire plant, reducing it to a foul mess. Late blight is common when fall rains return early. Harvest tomatoes to ripen indoors, and remove affected plants to avoid spreading the disease.
Good luck. And remember: The best-flavored tomato is a ripe one.