You wouldn’t think we would get Spring fever here in Southern California, especially after a non-existent winter of 60- and 70-degree weather and little rain. But give us a few hot days in a row, and we grow as feverish as the folks still buried in snow back east.
Once I get that vision of plucking a warm tomato off the vine, and then slicing it into thick slabs and slathering them in mayo…I’m in trouble. Problem is I haven’t had a lot of luck growing tomatoes up here on the hill. The main tomato slayer: coastal fog. Even if you gussy up our clay soil with amendments, you can lose your entire crop to June gloom, which is a thick marine layer that rolls in every morning, and sometimes forgets to roll back out. Tomatoes need sun, and lots of it.
So this year, I sought out some professional advice. I dropped in on Tomatomania at Roger’s Gardens in Newport Beach, which is a roving tomato event and claims to be the “world’s largest seedling sale.” Coincidentally, a sustainable gardening group in my hometown, called Transition Laguna, last night hosted “Mr. Tomato,” a charming man named Gary Delk, who specializes in growing heirlooms in his La Habra, California home. So I am now bursting with tomato growing tips and advice.
I have to put one thing right out there. The expert at the Tomatomania event told everyone to go ahead and plant their seedlings now, and advised us to continue succession planting every couple weeks. Mr. Tomato, however, said don’t even bother planting most tomatoes until June. JUNE?!? “They say wait until you can take down your pants and sit on the ground and it’s not cold anymore.” Oops! My precious six seedlings are already in the ground. Guess that’s what happens when you have a fever.
The good news is that Mr. Tomato said it doesn’t necessarily hurt to plant early, and the plants will grow now, but very slowly. Only with real heat will they thrive and start to produce. He said why give pests and mildew more time to discover your plants.
Well, enough about my impulsive planting decisions. Mr. Tomato said it’s fine to buy your seedlings now, but just wait to sink them in the ground. If you want to arm yourself with some of his other great advice, here’s some tips he shared with our group:
Favorite fertilizer: Dr. Earth. (“Miracle Grow is like crack for tomato plants,” he said. Too much nitrogen boosts plant growth early on, but not good in long run for flavorful, productive fruit.)
Mildew Buster: Natria. (It’s applied topically and is mainly canola oil. He swears by it!)
Hottest tip: When plants have bloomed (those little yellow flowers), give your cages or other supports “a little jiggle now and then.” It helps them pollinate (tomatoes are self-pollinators).
Rule of thumb: If you want larger tomatoes, pinch new growth. If you want more tomatoes, don’t pinch.
Other hot tip: After you plant your seedlings, press an aspirin (the cheapest brand is best) into ground several inches down on either side of the plant. Mr. Tomato claims this inhibits all types of nasty issues.
Favorite varieties: Celebrity (high producer of consistently tasty tomatoes), Oregon Spring, Early Girl, Sun Gold, Sun Sugar, Juliet, Lemony/Limmony (if you like high acid tomatoes), Black Sea Man (he LOVES this Russian heirloom), Big Beef (although he suggests staying away from other “beef” varieties), Shady Lady.
Advice for Foggy Areas: Look for varieties that are from places with similar fog issues, such as Oregon, Maine, Czechoslovakia, etc.
Favorite advice program: Garden Life, a radio program.
Hottest trend in tomatoes: Grafting. He said it’s popular in Japan because the goal is to produce many tomatoes in small areas.
You can contact Mr. Tomato at Mr.Tomatoinfo@gmail.com. He is so knowledgeable and generous with his time and information!
Also, if you just can’t get enough of these tomato tips, I wrote another post on tomato advice for Roger’s Gardens’ blog featuring tips from the owner of Tomatomania. Click HERE to read that article.