Tomatoes – Planning ahead
By Sara Malone, Sonoma County Master Gardener
In Sonoma County the rule of thumb is that we plant tomatoes in the garden around mid-May. Mother’s Day is a good target date, especially if you help your mother plant hers. No matter how many sunny days we have before then or how many tomatoes are for sale in the nurseries in March and April, resist the temptation to plant early – the soil and air are simply not warm enough for them to grow in the garden.
So why are we writing about tomatoes in March? Because if you are interested in getting a jump on the season – in other words, starting with bigger, more vigorous plants – or planting favorite varieties that you don’t find in your local nursery or simply having the experience of growing tomatoes all the way from seed to salad, you need to start now.
The best reason to grow tomatoes from seed is selection – there are hundreds of tomato varieties and the nurseries obviously can’t stock them all in six-packs. Perhaps you have a favorite from childhood, or one that a friend brought you from his garden. You may just want to experiment. While seeds are also cheaper than starts, considering that most of us are not going to plant more than a dozen plants, the savings is insignificant and quickly consumed by any other supplies that you purchase.
Tomato seeds need heat to germinate and light to grow. Master Gardener and Press Democrat columnist Rosemary McCreary has an excellent article covering ways to provide light indoors – see the link on our home page. You can provide the heat by starting them indoors and the light by purchasing a small (usually 2-4’) florescent light fixture. I bought a 2’ double-bulb fixture with a stand that is specifically designed for seed starting from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply (www.groworganic.com). It fits easily on a shelf and the lights can be raised as the seedlings grow. I also use a timer to turn the lights on and off for added convenience. Rosemary discusses the basic techniques in her article, and if you plant seeds indoors at the beginning of March, you’ll have plants ready for transplanting into the garden in May. My experience has been that my plants look better – bigger, more vigorous – than most of the ones in the nurseries at that time. I know that I am prouder of them!
The other way that you can get a jump on the tomato season and have access to a wide variety of different tomatoes is to visit Cornerstone Gardens ‘Tomatomania’ on April 12th and 13th on Highway 121 in Sonoma. This 2-day sale purports to be the largest heirloom tomato seedling sale in northern California. There will also be lectures and Q & A with the founder of Tomatomania. The real draw, however, is that anyone that attends Tomatomania gets an invitation to return in the fall for (one supposes) the largest heirloom tomato tasting in northern California. For more details, check out www.cornerstonegardens.com and click on ‘calendar’. The website also provides directions. Remember, if you do purchase plants, keep them well-watered in a sheltered place with good light until the beginning of May. Then read our piece on tomatoes from last May (see article archives on left hand side of home page) and start planting!
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners