by Cyndy Crist
Let’s face it: for those of us who live in the city, it can be tough to grow our own tomatoes. While some are fortunate (and ambitious!) enough to have plots in community gardens, many of us are limited by the shade cast by mature trees and building density. Happily, demand for locally grown produce has led to an explosion of farmers’ markets that make it easy to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables that we can’t grow ourselves. Still, there’s nothing quite like eating a tomato straight from the vine. With a little research and a bit of imagination, any urban dweller can enjoy some grow-your-own garden bounty. Here are some things to consider if you want to rise to the challenge of growing your own tomatoes.
As the song goes, let’s start at the very beginning.
Planning Tip #1: Decide the optimum location in your garden to grow your tomatoes. Here, the first thing to consider is the tomato’s need for “full sun”, which at a minimum is six hours daily and preferably eight or more. If your tomatoes don’t get enough sunlight, they simply won’t produce the beautiful fruit that is the whole reason for growing them. This isn’t a “nice to have,” it’ a must!
Planning Tip #2: Determine how much space you have. Most tomatoes are naturally sprawling plants that are initially compact but soon are filling cages or spreading across the garden. Such varieties obviously need plenty of room to thrive. But some tomatoes are determinate varieties, which means they’re programmed (by nature or hybridizers) to grow only to a certain size. Good determinate varieties include Principe Borghese, a prolific plum variety, and Green Grape, a cherry tomato whose fruit is tangy and beautiful. Bush Champion is a determinate hybrid tomato that has been bred to grow well in pots.
Planning Tip #3: If you decide to grow tomatoes in pots, select a variety that is well-suited to this application. Sometimes you can solve your space (or full-sun) problem by growing tomatoes on decks, patios, and balconies. Good choices for containers include Bush Champion, a hybrid determinate tomato, and Red Currant, an heirloom cherry tomato.
Bush Champion is short and bushy with a very strong stem that can hold the tomato bush up without cages. While the flavor is not as distinctive as the heirloom varieties, Bush Champion is still a very tasty tomato with a classic sugar to acid balance. The Red Currant is sprawling and will need support in the pot, but the tomatoes are very small, very prolific, and have a flavor punch that is very distinctive. The Red Currant is actually in a different botanical family than the tomato, but for all intents, tastes, and purposes, it is a tomato.
Two words of caution about pots, however.
1) Tomatoes need plenty of water to grow and produce well, and containers dry out quickly, especially in hot, windy weather. Before choosing this option, be certain that you can commit to regular watering (likely daily, and even more frequently in some conditions), and make sure the pots have good drainage. Tomatoes love to be well and evenly watered, but they don’t like to stand with their feet in a pond!
2) Tomatoes grown in pots frequently suffer from a disease called blossom end rot, where the end of the tomato turns black and hard. This is due to inconsistent watering and a leaching of the calcium out of the pot. Make sure you do not let the pots dry out and then overcompensate by pouring gallons of water in later on. If you do see blossom end rot appearing, add a couple of tablespoons of Epson salts to you water and continue growing. The next flush of tomatoes should be fine. More information to come on this later in the season when we do a lengthy post on tomato diseases.
Planning Tip #4: A Moveable Feast. The watering challenge is balanced by the benefit of being able to move pots around. This offers the advantage of being able to provide your plants with more sun than they can get in a single location. Although you probably won’t want to move your pots daily, a little transit lets you adjust for changing patterns of sun over the course of the growing season. For example, there’s a corner by my garage that’s in full sun much of the summer but not as September approaches. And don’t forget that a pot with a large tomato plant will be heavy, so be kind to your back and keep your pot in a small wagon or on a wheeled platform.
Planning Tip #5: Visual Creativity & Surprising Combos. One more thought about where to grow your tomatoes. Some people think that edibles don’t belong in an ornamental garden, but this a rule begging to be broken. Not only do such constraints reduce available growing space, but some fruits and vegetables are very ornamental. Although sprawling, Matt’s Wild Cherry looks beautiful when graced by both sprays of yellow blossoms and clusters of vivid red fruit, and vegetables like Bright Lights Swiss chard and eggplant can add color and texture to a flower garden. A little creativity here may help you discover that you have more places to grow tomatoes than you think.
Planning Tip #6: Select Varieties that will fit your ultimate uses. Once you’ve determined where you can grow tomatoes, a few more questions will help you narrow the list of satisfying, as well as workable, options. To that end, ask yourself the following:
- What are my favorite ways to use tomatoes? Some tomatoes are at their finest when used fresh, while others are especially well suited to making sauces or stuffing. Some will look beautiful in salads, while others provide the perfect slices for a BLT. Dorothy’s heirlooms chart is a big help here. For example, she notes that Black Mauri is great in salads, Japanese Black Trifele holds its flavor well for canning, and Opalka is great for sauces and canning. Of course, there’s no “right” answer to this question, but being clear about your preferences will make for happier results.
- Do I care more about quantity or quality? This may seem like a strange question, but some folks end up being disappointed by a plant that grows well but produces just a few tomatoes before the first frost while others are satisfied with just a few perfect tomatoes per plant. Do a little research, and you’ll discover that some varieties are prolific producers, while others have knock-out flavor but fewer fruits. Some people see this as an heirloom vs hybrid choice, but this isn’t an either/or proposition. For example, you’ll have no shortage from heirlooms like Matt’s Wild Cherry (can you tell this is my favorite?!) or Black Krim, an early producing Russian variety.
Planning Tip #7: Go Ahead, Gamble a Little. When all is said and done, pushing boundaries and experimenting can yield wonderful results, so don’t feel too constrained by what you’ve read here. A bit of research, planning, and consideration of preferences can help increase your chances of success. But taking some well-considered risks can also be exciting. If you push the envelope and are successful, you can bask in the glow of your adventure. And if your results are disappointing, you’ll have learned some valuable lessons to apply in the future, and your local growers will benefit from your increased business. Kind of a win/win, I’d say!