Friday, May 22, 2009

Spoiling Tomatoes Rotten: How We Grow 'Em in the Pacific NW

Tomatoes are fussy plants. They require lots of pampering before we see results here in the maritime weather of Seattle. And if you live on a hill, like we do, there's even more pampering that has to occur. And if you don't pamper, you could be adding weeks and weeks of time between planting till picking your first ripened juicy jewel of a tomato.

I attended a class given by a local gardening guru, Marianne Binetti. She is a character. Travels to Italy alot because her son is a pro basketball player there. She had some great directions for planting tomatoes in cool to moderate climates like our.

The quickest way to a tomato harvest is to start with a plan.

First, find a south facing wall with full sun. Try to paint the wall white, as the white will reflect more of the sun's rays that induce quicker ripening of fruit. I tried a west facing wall last year with 6-8 hours of light with not so great results. Even better is if you have windows on a south facing wall. This is how my mom-in-law grows them and her plants always grow like gangbusters!

Then gather your list of supplies:
  1. terracotta pots (i use the E31 size. i've seen people use the huge terracotta pots, so they can companion plant herbs in with their toms)
  2. stakes
  3. Momma's holy nylons: use these to tie plants to the stake without damaging the stem
  4. fertilizer such as bonemeal, alfalfa meal, wood ashes
  5. clear plastic: to cover pants on nights where the temp dips below 50 and on those rainy days to protect the leaves from getting wet, which could induce tomato blight.
  6. Planting in the ground? You'll also need red plastic (like the kind the potatoes or the Sunday news comes in--use these to save some $$$). This plastic can be used as mulch spread out on top of the soil underneath plants. Red plastic reflects UV rays to leaves of plant and helps fruit ripen 5-7 days earlier, whereas black plastic only holds heat.
With all you'll need gathered, you'll be ready to go to the garden centre and investigate which tomato plants will be just perfect for your home.

There are to types of tomato plants: determinate (d) and indeterminate (i).

Determinate's fruit will mature earlier than the indeterminate's. Determinates will stop producing around the time the indeterminate begin ripening. It is recommended to purchase at least 1 determinate and 1 indeterminate, for the determinate's fruit will ripen and you will be enjoying it in sandwiches, salads, burgers long before your indeterminate's have ripened.

It is also recommended that you seek out the plants that are developed in your area. I know people who are set on a certain kind like Big Boy or the like. 'Cause why would you plant a tomato plant in the foothills of the Cascades when it was developed for the gardener from the Oklahoma plains?

For our area of West WA, Coastal OR, and cooler climates of N. ID, these types are recommended:

  • d's for our area: Gold Nugget, Oregon Spring, Early Cascade, Willamette, Golden Delight, Taxi, Fantasic Hybrid, Pic Red, Legend, Sun Sugar.
  • i's for our area: Early Girl, Stupice
  • Best sauce toms: window box Roma (d), striped Roma (d), Heinz, Oregon Star, Super Marzano.

Once you have purchased your seedlings, it's time to harden off like a professional. Hardening off requires you to place the plants outside 4 -5 days, exposing them to sun and a tiny bit of wind in the daytime and bring indoors at night. The plants leaves will thicken and become a darker green, therefore making the plant more resistant to flea beetles.

For our cooler climate, test growers have reported that covering your tomatoes every night until July 4th is best for maxium productivity. Just don't forget to uncover them every morning so they'll get good circulation. I have seen gardeners around the area just wrap the plastic around the sides of the tomato cage, which cuts down on the work of removing the plastic every day.

The biggest reason to make sure your plants have a nice warm shelter on a cool night is because plants like tomatoes and peppers "pout" when they get cold. They'll throw tantrums that rival that of a 3 year old's fit in the grocery store, during the busiest time on day, when you tell them they can't have the free cookie at the bakery! If these plants are exposed to 1 night 50 degrees or below, they pout for a week. For 2 nights at 50 degrees, then for 2 weeks they'll pout. Basically the number of days their exposed to cold temps, that's the number of weeks they'll go on strike. A pouting plant will throw the equivalant to a tantrum by shuting down production and casting off buds. Kinda like a French labour union's strike, without the hostages, eh?

Marianne's Rule of (green) Thumb is:

if you don't know how to spoil a child, you won't grow good tomatoes and peppers. :o)

Another rule of thumb--proven at test gardens in OR--peppers can not be planted in our climate until after June 10th. Same with basil.

Planting your tomato pot:

Use a terra cotta pot with drainage holes

Use crumpled plastic pots from starts in the bottom of the pot for great drainage material. This will also enable you to use less soil if you have purchased a larger pot.

Use POTTING SOIL to fill the pot so to cover the drainage you've placed in there plus an inch. Make sure you don't use garden soil from the yard as it doesn't drain fast enough for use in a pot. Also, don't reuse tomato pots with last years soil for this year's tomatoes--reuse last year's soil for flowers. Blight can overwinter in the soil just as it does in the garden.

Add fertilizer (i use alfalfa) to your pot.

Now prep your plant: remove those bottom leaves--at least half way up the stem.

like this

Get in touch with your inner kid and make mud puddling: take 1 cup of luke warm water and pour in the hole, making a slurry of soil.

Dip plant in bucket of warm water, half way up the stem from roots. Warm water tells plant to grow roots instead of leaves. Then massage roots. And add another cup of warm water to the pudding.

When potting, bury 1/2 of the plant stem. If flowering, try to lay plant on it's side with small piece of top exposed. The warm water will induce root growth faster and the heavy fruit that will soon develope on that flower will have plenty of roots to support that stem of the young plant.

Place pot on top of plastic caps from bottles or lids from jars (i use the saucers i have left over from pots that have broken), carefully avoiding drainage holes, to boost drainage so that plant doesn't sit in pool of water on ground, deck, patio, etc. Tomatoes really don't like wet feet either.


Boy, i can almost taste those Christmas Grape Tomatoes!!

Other important tips:

**if planting in ground, follow these directions (minus the plastic pots in the bottom of the hole) and add one handful of bonemeal, wood ashes, or dolomite lime (anything high in Ca) to increase acidity of soil to prevent blossom end rot.

**if using water soluble fertilizer, pour over leaves early A.M. on a sunny, warm day for max absorbtion into the plant.

***keep your soil moisture consistant and your leaves dry to prevent late blight.

***to prevent Tobacco Mosaic Virus, do not allow any smokers near your tomato plants.

Remember Mom's and Dad's advice: "You have to plant marigolds with tomatoes!" Well, marigolds are the magnet that attract aphids and slugs to your toms. Use lavendar instead, or plant onions or garlic around your tomatoes. Basil is especially good if you are planting in pots.


  1. The best way to support your tomato plants is with The Tomato Stake.

    Easier to use than metal cages or upside down planters, stronger than bamboo and won't rot like wood stakes. The built-in twist-tie supports make tying your tomato plants easy!

  2. Stumbled across your blog when searching Marianne Binetti and tomatoes. I just love her wit & wisdom for gardening in our area. I'm just outside of Black Diamond. I thought you'd like to know about the absolutely free Green Elephant plant swaps held several times a year in a church parking lot in Redmond, WA with the next one on Sat. June 2.


Thanks for taking the time to read my silly lil musings. Hope you have a wonderful day!