For most people growing tomatoes isn’t a full-time job. Growing 150 tomatoes, though, takes a whole different level of commitment. For many years I was basically at home so filling my days with tomato and garden tasks became my life.
Then, I went to work. I mean a job that not only takes me away from home but where I travel all over the country two to three weekends a month.
Not wanting to give up my tomato obsession I decided that I would have to be very organized about caring for the gardens and would definitely need some help. I scheduled my teaching trips around the typical dates and biggest periods of harvest.
Lesson #1 – there is no such thing as typical and there are no weather patterns that can be counted on. My first harvest came late and, of course the majority of the big tomatoes seemed to be ready to pick right when I was boarding a plane.
This year, I grew 125 tomato plants instead of my usual 150. I harvested almost as many tomatoes as I did in years past.
Note to self: 125 plants require as much work as 150, so don’t think you’ll be saving time.
Lesson #2 – the key is to plant the right tomato varieties. Plant those tomatoes that you will use. And, plant the varieties that are usually good producers. I had a couple of plants that gave me some really delicious fruit, but is it really worth it to grow a plant for 5 delicious tomatoes?
I am always a sucker for the different cherry varieties. They’re all so cute, they sound so good and you can just pop them in your mouth for a snack when you’re out in the garden. Sounds really good until you need to pick all of those cherry tomatoes. Now, THAT takes time!
Now, about help…I have some great helpers in the garden. Even so, things didn’t always get done the way I might have done them.
Lesson #3 – Yeah, yeah, if you want something done right, do it yourself. And then you’ll still make mistakes. Things will go wrong. Make that part of the process and it doesn’t have to be so painful.
Lesson #4 – And this is the really important one – gardening and growing tomatoes is a really fun way to make the most of the magic of nature. Sure, we can take care to maintain healthy soil, water properly and keep the bad stuff down to a minimum. Don’t let it become such a chore or so stressful that it diminishes your pleasure. Enjoy it for what it is.
The fact is, there is only so much that a person can do to grow a great crop of tomatoes and then the rest is up to, you guessed it, nature.
Don’t despair – Knowing how to prepare your soil and water effectively will allow your tomato garden to flourish this summer!
It’s been a tough winter across the country…Some are enduring one polar vortex after another and here on the west coast, with almost no snow to speak of, we’re wondering how we’re going to be able to garden at all without any water.
It’s sad to think that we may have to amend our gardening plans and possibly not enjoy that activity that brings us so much pleasure, not to mention really tasty gifts from the garden this summer!
Don’t despair, though. Knowing how to water your tomatoes and how to make your soil work for you will allow you to grow a great crop this year!
Whether you’re a tomato novice or a seasoned grower in the Southern California area, you’ll want to learn how to grow in this unique growing climate. That’s why we’re offering our garden tour and TOMATO ‘SSENTIALS class at a reduced price this year. We want you to be successful in the garden, not just wishing you could be! The class will be held on Sunday, March 16, in the Tomato Matters Garden. In this class you’ll learn Six “Ssential” Steps for Tomato Success, yes, the ‘Ssentials for growing great tomatoes!
There’s lots of new information so the class is perfect for the first time grower as well as those experienced gardeners who need a refresher or to be updated. You’ll go home with a complete handout and a tomato plant to get your garden started.
Best of all, we’ve lowered the price of the class so more people can participate. Even more great tomato information at a better price. You don’t want to miss it!
For time, price and to reserve your spot for this fun morning in the garden, click here. See you in the garden!
Spider Mites feed on just about anything…fruit trees, vines, ornamental plants and vegetables. There are various types and colorings of Spider Mites, but what you really need to know is that they are undesirable in the garden and no matter the type of Mite, their damage is similar as are the steps you can take to control them.
Spider Mites are difficult to see without magnification. They’re tiny. But, they live in colonies, sometimes made up of hundreds of Mites and that’s what you’ll see when there’s an infestation. They tend to colonize on the underside of leaves so it’s often the telltale webbing that you’ll discover first.
In cold areas, Spider Mites overwinter in layers of tree bark or in piles of garden droppings and trash. In warmer areas, where plants remain green (Southern California gardeners take note) they can feed and reproduce throughout the year. Either way, when the weather is warm, Spider Mites lay their eggs. It doesn’t take long for the next generation to appear.
Spider Mites prefer dry, dusty conditions. You’ll often see them first along the outer edges of the garden or on plants that are water stressed. Their damage is first visible as stippling on the leaves. Affected leaves will eventually yellow, red or brown and fall off. You’ll see webbing over areas of leaves, often at the tips of branches. They not only cause leaf damage but can also cause direct damage to the fruit or vegetable pods.
If you suspect a Spider Mite infestation the first action to take is to confirm it. Shake an affected leaf over a piece of white paper. When mites are present they move quickly. Only think about treating when the mites are present. In minor occurrences of Spider Mites insecticidal soaps or oils or even sprays of water may keep them under control. Please heed this warning: There are many sprays on the market said to control Spider Mites. These should only be used as a last resort as they are not only often ineffective, but they target the natural predators of Spider Mites as well as the Mites themselves. This, in fact, then allows Spider Mite reproduction to increase.
The best ways to manage Spider Mites are with biological and cultural controls. Adding natural predators to the garden is the most effective way to control Spider Mites and most other pests. The predatory insects are available for purchase and release at many garden shops or online. They are easy to use and highly effective in maintaining control of harmful insects.
In terms of cultural controls try to keep plants from being water stressed. That can be difficult for tomato growers since they should be kept on the slightly dry side. If you can keep surrounding areas moist and dust free it will help. Water down the pathways now and then. Be sure to keep garden areas tidy and rubbish free. This is helpful in controlling all sorts of things you would rather not have taking up residence in your garden.
Whether you’re growing a Fall garden or just looking ahead to Spring, it’s worth it to take the time now to be sure the garden is neat and tidy. It’s one simple step you can take that will help prevent future problems.
Sweet Million, Sungold, Black Cherry… All it takes is a few cherry tomato plants and you will mostly likely be overwhelmed with cherry tomatoes. No matter how wonderful it is to munch your way through the garden, how many can you really eat at one time?
There’s that time, early in the growing season when I’m feeling impatient and yearning for a ripe tomato. Too soon for most of the heirlooms to come in, I know I can at least count on having cherry tomatoes to eat. But, that was then and this is now. We’re at the height of the season and the kitchen counter is completely covered in big, meaty tomatoes. I sell them, I give them away, I freeze and I can them. I can’t make salsas, sauces and salads fast enough. And, that doesn’t even begin to take into account the cherries…
So, today I’ve decided to focus on how to use up a bowl or two of today’s cherry tomato harvest. Roasting cherry tomatoes in a really low oven is one of the easiest ways to use them up and the result is an incredibly tasty and versatile addition to almost any recipe. Roasting them today will make you really happy in the winter when you’re craving a hearty tomato sauce. Here’s how to roast cherry tomatoes (or plum tomatoes) to use immediately in a multitude of recipes or to save for a later date. Note that I haven’t specified any quantities. That’s because you can adapt this recipe for any quantity of tomatoes. As a starting point I can tell you that for 4 cups of tomatoes I used ¼ cup olive oil and 2 teaspoons of chopped thyme.
Slow Roasted Tomatoes
Cherry, grape or small Roma tomatoes
cloves of garlic, unpeeled
extra virgin olive oil
chopped fresh thyme
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 225°F. Cut each cherry tomato in half crosswise or plum tomato lengthwise. Arrange the tomatoes, cut side up on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place the unpeeled cloves of garlic around the tomatoes. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top, just enough to make the tomatoes glisten. Sprinkle with thyme and pinch of salt and pepper.
Bake the tomatoes in the oven for about three hours. The tomatoes will shrivel and dry out a bit, but some juice will remain..
Use the roasted tomatoes immediately or let them cool to use later. If storing them in the refrigerator, cover them with some extra olive oil. Your oven roasted tomatoes can also be frozen in airtight containers.
Now, here’s another recipe for a cherry tomato dish that I know you’ll love. I made this one for dinner last night and it was really tasty. I put the leftovers in the refrigerator over night and it’s even better. There’s not a bite left.
Herbed Cherry Tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 cloves)
4 cups cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a saute pan large enough to hold all the tomatoes in one layer. Add the garlic to the oil and cook over a medium heat for just a minute. You don’t want the garlic to brown but to soften slightly.
Add the tomatoes, basil, parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to pop. Remove the pan from the heat when several of the tomatoes have popped and serve hot or at room temperature.
Simply put, foliar feeding is feeding the leaves. So, if you fertilize the roots of the plant why do you need to feed the leaves? Because feeding the leaves is another really great way to improve the health of your plants and provide sustenance. That’s especially important when it appears that there’s something amiss with a plant. Perhaps the vascular system has been compromised and it’s not able to take up nutrition. Foliar feeding just may provide enough nutrients to get the plant back on track.
I foliar feed my tomato plants four times during the growing season. This is in addition to the feeding that is done at the soil. The first foliar feed is when the yellow flowers first appear and the second is when fruit starts to form. One month later I give the third application and the fourth is one month after that.
Sometimes I use the compost from my worm bin to make a compost tea to feed the plants. Worm tea is the liquid concentrate of worm compost. Ideally, it is full of minerals and microbacteria that is incredibly valuable for your plants. The tea is created by brewing the compost in water and using a pump or stirring rapidly to aerate it. But that’s a lot of work and I’m not ever sure it’s as nutrient rich as I would like it to be. I often tell myself, my compost is only as good as what I put into it. And, I always worry that my worms get too many strawberries and not enough spinach.
It’s important to note that the liquid drainage that collects at the bottom of the worm bin is not compost tea. It’s actually liquid that leaches out of undigested food waste, and it can actually be toxic to your plants.
I love to use the Compost Tea Bags from Malibu Brew for my foliar feeding. It’s a biodynamic compost tea made from dairy cow manure from dairy cows which has very unique properties that make it even more powerful than chicken or steer manure or bat guano. Malibu Brew Compost Tea is really easy to make and easy to use. I put one of the teabags into a bucket of water (2.5 gallons) and let it sit overnight. In the morning I give it a really good stir and then stir it the other way. Then, I pour it into a garden sprayer and lightly spray the tea over the foliage. The leaves will be refreshed and revitalized.
In case you’re wondering, foliar feeding isn’t just for tomatoes. Go to town and spray your entire garden. You’ll be glad you did!
Knowing the right time to plant tomatoes depends on your soil temperature.
I’m getting lots of phone calls and emails from anxious gardeners and tomato growers wondering if it’s time to plant tomatoes yet? The answer is…it depends!
Where are you growing? What’s your average nighttime temperature? Have you thought about taking the temperature of your garden soil? Soil temperature is the key to deciding when to plant tomatoes. The soil must consistently be 55 degrees or higher for tomatoes to thrive. My general rule of thumb for tomato growers in Southern California is to wait until the end of the third week in March. Then, check your soil temperature (I use a meat thermometer!) If it’s still too cold, give it another week.
If you’ve purchased tomato seedlings but it’s still too cold at night for them to be planted outdoors, let them enjoy the sunshine during the day. Be sure to keep them somewhat protected from the elements and give them a feeding of diluted liquid fertilizer once a week. Bring them in at night, putting them somewhere away from drafts or the furnace.
An Update about Tomato Seeds….
Did you start your tomato seeds yet? If not, you still have time but not time to waste. Tomato Sseds that you start now should be ready to plant outside in 6 – 8 weeks. That sounds like perfect timing, especially if your climate will allow you to begin planting in the next couple of weeks. Spreading out your planting means you’ll be harvesting tomatoes for a longer period and that sounds really good to me!
When your tomato seedlings first emerge they’ll have two tiny leaves called cotyledon. In just a short amount of time they will develop a second set of leaves, called “true leaves”. Begin feeding once a week with diluted liquid organic fertilizer.
When seedlings are about 1 ½” tall they are ready to be potted up into 4″ containers with organic potting soil. (This will be in about 30 days.)
You”ll need to “harden off” the seedlings before moving them outdoors. Start the process by moving the seedlings outside for a few hours every morning. Pick a spot where they get a few hours of gentle sunlight and are sheltered from the worst weather extremes (eastern exposures are great). Don’t take them outside if temperatures threaten to drop much below 60ºF or if rain is imminent. After a few hours, move them back inside. Extend their time outside a few hours at a time over the next two weeks. At the same time, gradually increase their exposure to full sun and the elements. It’s not uncommon at this stage to find your seedlings bending over as they adjust to harsher conditions outside. If they start looking sad, reduce the time outside or stake them up with bamboo skewers.
Transplant outside when day time temperatures are consistently between 70-75 degrees and night time doesn’t dip below 55.
John Valentino, of “John & Bob’s Grow Green Smart Soil Solutions, and I met for a chat about….dirt!
Online relationships can be tricky and often misleading. I’ve had an internet friendship with a man for several years. John always seemed friendly and cheerful. I thought he seemed genuinely interested and committed to our friendship because he always replied to my emails quickly and with enthusiasm. Our conversations often focused on our mutual interest, a passion for gardening.
From time to time we toyed with the idea of getting together to meet in person. We don’t live near each other so it just never seemed to work out. And so it continued, status quo.
Now, if you’re thinking this story doesn’t belong on a gardening blog because it’s going to get very dirty…well, it is. But, not the kind of dirty you might be expecting. Read on.
As I said, John and I share a passion for gardening. To say I have a “thing” for tomatoes is putting it mildly. And, as crazy as I am about growing tomatoes, that’s John when he’s talking about dirt. But, don’t call it that. It’s soil. And, if he has anything to say about it, it’s healthy, vibrant, living soil that supports life from the microscopic fungi and protozoa to my eight-foot tall tomato plants.
As luck would have it, John and I did finally meet in January. He was an exhibitor at a local trade show so I drove over to meet him. I was beyond excited. I envisioned sitting down with this carefree guy, dressed in soiled jeans and work boots, chatting up a storm about all of our favorite tomatoes and the most delicious ways to enjoy them. I was thrilled to meet and have some face time with someone who plays such a huge part in my gardening success. You see, John is one half of John & Bob’s Grow Green Smart Soil Solutions. I’ve been using their “stuff ” (as John refers to it) for years in my gardens and the results are outstanding!
So, that’s where the fantasy ended. The effervescent exchange that I imagined didn’t materialize. I arrived at our meeting location a few minutes early so I could stop by the ladies room before we met. Of course, John was already awaiting my arrival, early and ready to get down to business. He greeted me with a slight smile, dressed in perfectly pressed khakis and a crisp button down shirt. This was not going to be the warm, fuzzy tomato talk I expected. Without making my pit stop, John walked briskly and directed me to the John and Bob’s display booth. I had trouble keeping up with my shorter stride. John didn’t care. He was a man on a mission.
John had something he had to show me. To John, it wasn’t enough that I love, swear by and practically insist that my students use his products to grow great vegetables. John is a science and numbers guy. I appreciated that he patiently explained to the importance of mycorrhizae (I can’t even say that) and the difference between the bad and beneficial nematodes.
More than that, though, he wanted me to see charts, photographs and cost comparisons to further prove that the beneficial bacteria, fungi and protozoa that make up John and Bob’s product line make a huge difference in the overall health and production of every garden and at a very reasonable cost. My cursory glance and nod of acceptance wasn’t enough. Look again, John insisted. He showed me the impressive results of their field tests using the four John & Bob’s products, Optimize, Nourish/Bio-Sol, Maximize and Penetrate, at a residential garden, a university campus and a community hospital. Yes, the landscaping looked spectacular. But John needed to be sure I saw the part about the cost of using his products in each situation compared to using bulk soil amendments. It wasn’t just about the cost of the products, either. It was about the amount of time and labor (and cost of labor) involved in using the products.
You know how they say you have to hear something eight times to remember it? Well, it might have been seven or it might have been ten times, but after saying it and showing me so many times, I got it! I already knew that John’s products worked great. I knew that I didn’t have to throw out my back to use it or pay an arm and a leg to get someone else to use it. What I finally understood, though, was that ounce per ounce, John and Bob’s goes so much further than any other amendment I might use, that I’m actually using less product and I’m spending a lot less money!
John and I haven’t spoken since that meeting last month, but we have emailed a few times. I had some questions about using John & Bob’s with my seed starting mixture and he promptly and thoroughly answered my queries. Yes, his stuff goes in right at the beginning.
It’s a safe and familiar relationship and it’s comforting, too. I know if I need some info about making my garden beds even better, John will be right there for me. Not the kind of dirt you might have expected, but just the kind of dirt this gardener needs.
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Start your tomato seeds now – It’s almost time to start planting!
And, so, it begins…
Typically in the San Fernando Valley we will plant tomatoes outside around the end of March or beginning of April. Counting back 6 – 8 weeks from that target date is, well, now! That means it’s time to start tomato seeds and nurture them indoors until nighttime temperatures are consistently in the mid-fifties and the seedlings are strong enough to be planted in the ground.
Last weekend I started 18 varieties of tomatoes from seed. That’s just the beginning. I’ll start more seed but I also will allow plenty of room in the garden for tomatoes that I buy at seedling sales. Going to the sales and searching for new varieties that I haven’t yet tried is one of my greatest pleasures and I’ll never stop doing that!
We had a lovely afternoon on Sunday and I took full advantage by doing my seed work out in the garden. Frankly, the mess is easier to clean there so, if you can be outside or in a greenhouse to get your seed started, all the better.
I began with a huge plastic tub full of the ingredients that go in my seed starting medium. I like the plastic tub because it’s easy to move, easy to add water to and the high sides contain my potential spills. If you’re really doing a lot, you might find mixing the medium in a wheelbarrow very convenient.
Into the tub went equal parts organic peat moss, organic vermiculite and organic perlite. When mixed together the combination will provide a light medium that will retain enough moisture to encourage germination without drowning or rotting the tiny seeds.
Using my hands, I lightly lifted and tossed the ingredients to combine.
Then, I gently added water and mixed again. You want the medium to be moist when you add the seed.
Next, I took my containers (I like little pulp pots) and scooped some of the growing medium into them.. I gently pat it down without compacting and then added more to fill each cell to the top.
Using the end of a pencil, I made three holes in each cell. The holes were about 1/4 inch deep. I dropped one seed into each hole and then carefully covered them up with the potting mixture that was displaced when I made the holes.
I immediately added markers to each tray of seeds so I would know what I was growing. Seems like a no-brainer, but even though I do this right away I somehow always end up with one mystery plant! I included the name of the tomato and my start date on the marker.
Using a spray bottle filled with room temperature water, I moistened the growing mixture, taking care to spray each cell. The growing medium should be moist but not wet. To help retain moisture, I then put the trays into ziploc bags. The bags are left open so air can circulate.
My grow lights are set up (but not turned on until the little plants begin to appear) and heat mats are turned on. I’ve put the bags with the seedling trays on top of the mats as seeds need heat to germinate. Now, I’ll give a light spray of water each day and watch and wait.
See how easy it is? Now, go get set up to start your seeds. And, check back often. I’ll keep you updated on the progress of my seeds and the next steps of this seedling adventure.
So, back to selecting your seeds. You’ve got a pile of seed catalogs, everything looks fabulous, and you don’t know what to order. Ordering everything seems easiest or maybe ordering nothing.
No!! Neither option is a good one! Start by thinking about how much you want to grow. How much space do you have? And how much of that space will get enough sun, at least 8 hours per day (more for larger tomatoes) to successfully grow tomato plants? Do you have a favorite variety that you want to have a lot of? Do you want to grow tomatoes to eat sliced or in a salad or do you prefer to grow for sauces or canning?
Once you establish what you really like to do with your tomatoes and about how many you can grow, start thinking about the tomatoes you’ve enjoyed in the past. This is where keeping a garden journal comes in. Look at your notes. If Green Zebra didn’t do well in your extreme heat, cross that one off your list. If Kellogg’s Breakfast loved the heat (it does), and you absolutely loved the flavor, it would be a good one to grow again.
I like to break down my seeds list into color categories. If I don’t, I’m liable to end up growing a whole lot of bi-colored, sweet tomatoes and not have much to can for later use. So, I make a chart, as seen in the photo below. As you’ll see, I have each color listed and then different varieties within each color column. I’ve also included a very important number. This is often referred to at DTM or Day To Maturity. This is not an absolute but an approximation of how long it will take to produce ripe tomatoes once planted in the ground. Since many of these varieties are new to me, I’ve also decided to include a quick note about size when ready to harvest.
Now comes the fun part. Juggle. Mix it up. You don’t want to have all medium-sized red tomatoes coming in at the exact same time. Remove a few reds and add a few somewhere else. In fact, you don’t want all of your tomatoes ripening at once. Choose some that are early producers (55 – 60 days), some that are late (90 – 100 days) and some that will produce mid-season (75 – 80 days). Ultimately, you want to have a variety of colors and sizes coming in at any given time. You want diversity to keep things delicious and interesting.
Ok – you’re ready. Grab those seed catalogs, make your list and order! It’s almost time to start your seeds!