T he tomato (Lycopersicon lycopersicum) is a short-lived perennial that we treat as an annual. It originated in the Andean region of South America and was later domesticated in Mexico and Central America. During the early 16th century, it was introduced to Europe, eventually spreading around the world and developing into region-specific varieties. 

heirloom beefsteak tomatoes - Illustration by Helen Krayenhoff

Vine-like Indeterminate varieties require training and support and can reach 10 feet or more. Low growing side shoots on these can be cut back to promote fruit production and to make the plants more accessible for grooming. During late summer, it might also be a good idea to tip them back in order to limit their height, or you will need a strong support system and an orchard ladder for harvesting. Determinate varieties were developed primarily for large-scale field production and mechanical harvesting. Their bushy form makes them ideal for small spaces and containers. 

Perhaps the most debatable subject among home tomato growers is when to plant. The optimum temperature for seed germination is 85°F. Night temperatures below 50°F will cause tissue damage and result in an increase in flower abortion. Root growth at these lower temperatures ceases, but many pathogenic fungi thrive, resulting in a high rate of disease. Our best selection of varieties generally peaks sometime in May. Don’t let your friends and neighbors make you feel bad about waiting until now to plant! With a higher sun and warmer soil, your plants will get off to a better start. 

Remember that tomatoes need full sun in order to set flowers and a warm location for ripening. Also, it is important to rotate to a different planting location each year, over a three-year cycle. Add compost or an organic Tomato & Vegetable food to the soil. Plant the seedlings deep, covering 2 or 3 inches of stem. Visit your plants regularly but don’t overwater. Generally, a deep watering only once a week is plenty, and don’t worry about some wilting during daytime heat. 

So, is it worth growing your own? At the many produce and farmers markets around the Bay Area, you’ll undoubtedly find a decent selection of organic, vine-ripened, heirloom tomatoes by the end of August. But consider that a household of four can be well-supplied by just four (not 12) tomato plants. We’d love to sell more, and some of you might have acreage in rural environs. But the fact is that many of our customers buy too many plants; the plants become crowded, diseases spread, and they generally don’t perform well. Stick with one or two of your favorites, and try a couple of new ones.

Download this edition of Gardening Suggestions