One thing I get asked about a lot, is how to grow good tomatoes here in Seattle. With the cooler climate and short “warm season” in the Pacific Northwest, growing tomatoes can be tricky. In an effort to learn what works best, I have planted my tomatoes with slight variations every year. There has definitely been a lot of trial and error. Below is a list of what has proven to work well for me over the years and a few tips on what NOT to do as well.
1. A couple of weeks before I plan on planting my tomatoes, I heat the soil by covering it with plastic. That will start tomatoes off right and give them the soil warmth they love. If it’s a particularly cold year, I might keep my plants inside until it warms up more. That involves up potting the plants and staking them (as pictured below), so it’s an added step and not my preferred method.
2. I try to pick good varieties that do well in my area. I usually only have room for about six plants, so I don’t want to buy a whole pack of seeds for just six plants. I also want several different varieties, so I always just buy starts. I like to get my starts at the Seattle Tilth Edible Plant Sale. They only carry varieties that will do well in this region and there are so many to choose from. Unfortunately, the sale already happened for this year*, but the vegetable list which has all the tomato varieties they carried listed (with great descriptions), can be still downloaded from their website, so it would still be a good place to start researching varieties.
*Tips for next year’s sale though, are to prepick what varieties you want ahead of time. I usually just pick based on the descriptions and whatever has won a tomato tasting contest (held at the Harvest Fair every year). Some of the more popular varieties (such as Sungold cherry tomatoes) sell out, so if you are dead set on a particular variety, get there early.
3. Plant in full sun. An ideal scenario for tomatoes would be an area that gets full sun and is near a wall that will warm up (and transfer heat to the tomatoes) and block wind.
4. Plant with proper amendments. I always amend all my beds with organic fertilizer in the Spring, but my tomatoes get more amendments when I plant them. For my planting hole, I dig it wide and deep. I then set the transplant, so it’s bottom set of leaves are at soil level. To each planting hole, I add a few inches of sifted compost, a handful of bone meal and a teaspoon of Epsom salts (for magnesium, which promotes productivity). I install my cages at the time of planting as well, so as not to disturb the roots.
5. I avoid transplant shock and keep the plants warm by covering them with plastic. I found some 33 gallon clear plastic bags that are just the right size and work great. I poke a few holes at the top to allow water to get through, so it doesn’t weigh the bag down and cause it to sink into the cage. I also use small binder clips at the bottom of the cage to keep it from blowing off.
6. When planting tomatoes make sure you give them enough space, usually 2-3 feet at least. If you do all this other stuff (keep them warm, fertilize, etc.), your plants will get big, which is great, that’s what we want, but big plants with not enough space between them, don’t get enough airflow and will promote the spread of disease.
7. I have heard of more aggressive pruning tactics, but I usually just remove the suckers (the new shoots that emerge from main and side stems). I just twist them off with my fingers when they are small. If they get too big to do that, I leave them, so as not to open up an opportunity for disease. I also leave some at the top, once the plant is big, to provide a little shade for the rest of the plant. I do however, start to remove blossoms late in the growing season (when it seems like they won’t have enough time to mature), so that they don’t take energy away from fruit that still needs to ripen.
8. I learned my lesson about the importance of even watering last year, when I got blossom end rot, which is caused by uneven watering. These pictures are all from last year when I planted them in containers. Tomatoes can do fine in containers (as long as they are large enough), just don’t forget to water them like I did. This year, they are back in the raised bed, which is on a drip irrigation system on a timer, so I won’t forget. Watering in general is a whole ‘nother subject I have yet to cover, so I will save that for another post.
9. Lastly, I fertilize during growing season with liquid seaweed. I just add a couple of capfuls to the watering can and add it that way, usually every couple of weeks. Side dressing with compost can also be good and act as a nice mulch that retains moisture.
Then if all goes well, I have enough tomatoes for sauce, snacking, sharing and my favorite zucchini tomato tart!
Do you have other tried and true methods for great tomatoes? Or varieties you really love? I would love to hear them!