The tomato: a fruit considered more mystical than most and desired by many. To those garden savvy, veggie lovers and growers who live in Whatcom County, this is especially true. Although it is frustrating to realize, a good tomato is hard to come by. Maybe the rarity of tomato perfection is what makes it so sought after and what drives people to want to grow their own. Co-owners of Joe’s Gardens, Nathan and Jason Weston explain, “Each spring we have customers ask how they can grow tomatoes that taste as good as ours.” Well never fear, the brothers assure it can be done!
Our saturated, chilled northwest climate means April is generally the best month for getting your tomato plants in the ground. The temperatures are finally warming up and frost risk is low. To start, the Westons recommend choosing a variety that is best suited for your growing environment.
Determinate (or ‘bush’) and cherry tomatoes are great varieites for beginners, and folks that don’t have a sunny location, to start with. As you gain experience, or if you have a sunnier location, try your hand at some of the larger, or Heirloom, varieties. If your garden or pot only gets about half a day of sunlight, or you are near the bay or at higher elevations, Early Girl, Oregon Spring, Celebrity or cherry varieties are good options. Nathan and Jason’s all time favorite, and the one that they grow for harvest at the farm, is called Joe’s Special. It is also encouraged to grow from a tomato “starter” rather than a seed.
“Germinating from a seed is hard. It needs perfect conditions,” Nathan stresses.
Jason rattles off a list of temperamental factors that go into seed germination, “Soil temperature, growth rate changes, stretching issues.”
Most people do not have the time to sit at home all day and babysit a plant sprout. Not to mention, starters have about a six week growing advantage over seeds.
When planting a starter, you do not necessarily need a garden. A five gallon pot or bucket works perfectly well and can be moved around as needed from one sunny spot to another.
To plant your starter, begin by hammering a six-foot stake into a 12 square inch plat of worked up soil. Jason likes using half compost and half potting soil to plant in. “Potting soil alone is on the drier side,” he explains. Tomato plants prefer to be consistently moist. Inconsistent watering (dramatic dry to wet soil) induces cracking in the fruit’s skin.
Next, notice all the fuzzy little hairs on the stem of your starter- these are potential roots. A strong root system is essential for the health of your plant, so dig a hole at the base of your stake and bury your starter to the lowest branch.
As the plant grows, twist-tie the stem to the stake. This will also help with stability as fruit matures. When choosing which fertilizer to use, Nathan says to choose tomato specific fertilizer. “This ensures the plant will get the proper amounts of magnesium and calcium tomatoes need.” The brothers recommend Nature’s Source All Natural Plant Food.
At about 2.5 feet, flowers will begin to bloom. It is at this stage that your plant might need a little boost. Nathan explains, “Most pollinators aren’t attracted to tomato blossoms.”
“Except bumblebees,” Jason chimes in.
To help with the pollination process, you can purchase pollen in a can or simply give the flowers a little tap with your fingers. On the farm they use electric toothbrushes. This is an important step because, without proper pollination, tomatoes might be malformed or not produce at all.
It is also at this height that you might begin to notice your plant sprouting “suckers,” or growths extending from the joints of the branches. These little guys draw energy away from already existing branches and fruits. By trimming and removing them you are allowing proper sunlight to ripen already established tomatoes and ensuring that they will have enough nutrients to reach a substantial size.
In the final days of summer, you should be regularly harvesting and gorging on your fresh fruits. However, to make sure they continue through September, be wary of the fall blight. This is an airborne illness that comes from the tomato’s unlikely cousin, the potato. Cool air from Canada ventures down south picking up blight spores from the surrounding area and leaving them in gardens. If a tomato plant is struck with the fall blight, it’s a goner. Nathan and Jason suggest covering tomato plants with a large plastic bag at night starting as early as August 1. This will keep dew from settling on the plant and decrease the odds of it getting the blight.
At the start of September, frost is on the mind of most gardeners. This means it is time to prepare for your final tomatoes. The Weston brothers suggest cutting your tomato vine off below the lowest fruit and hanging the vine upside down in your garage. The last of the fruit left on the vine will ripen over the next few months, lengthening the life of your plant and tomato harvest.
So there you have it – all the know-how from the best tomato growers in the business. Stop by Joe’s Gardens to gather up the supplies you need to get your plants in the ground before it’s too late. You can find Joe’s Gardens at 3110 Taylor Ave in Bellingham. You can also visit their website, facebook page or give them a call at 360-671-7639.