Definitely one of the most popular vegetables in the garden, but also one of the most difficult to grow at OVF. Our climate is cool and the air at night is very moist. These are challenging conditions for tomatoes.
Do not water them late in the evening as any moisture that gets on the leaves will not have a chance to dry off. Too much watering will cause end rot. a soft black spot on the bottom of the tomato. Tomatoes at OVF require water about every five days.
With all these Do's and Dont's, the most important bit of advice is don't panic if your plants get the blight. Do not rip them out. Be patient as the plants will still produce tomatoes. They may be fewer than what you had hoped for but it's guaranteed you they will still be much better than anything you can buy at the supermarket.
There are as many theories about growing tomatoes at OVF as there are gardeners. Weather is perhaps the most vital factor, as prolonged early spring coastal fogs and dampness spread fusarium virus and verticillium blight, two pervasive tomato diseases. The tomato hornworm is another monster that bedevils OVF gardeners.
A few veteran tomato growers weigh in with their cultivation theories...
MIKE AND CARRIE MANAUGH: HERITAGE FARMS
OVF members since 1991, the Manaugh's plot is located in Phase I at the very bottom of the hill. They remind gardeners that each part of the garden has its own micro-climate; eg. different exposure to wind and fog, and warn gardeners to consider their location carefully when planting their plots.
Carrie and Mike grow their own starter tomatoes from seed at home, this year being the first they tried grow-lights (Home Depot fluorescent bulbs in a 4 foot fixture in their garage,) and say they have had good success with them. The plants are started in 6-paks then put in 4" pots after about 6 weeks. They remain under the grow-lights in the pots until they are ready to acclimate to the outdoors. Total light exposure is about 14 hours a day, then the lights are turned off. When the outside air warms up, the plants are taken outside each day and gradually adjusted from shade to sun for about 1 hour exposure daily for about 1 week. According to Mike and Carrie, there has been a big difference in quality and health of their grow-light plants compared to those started in prior years without them.
Mike and Carrie use large round cages wrapped in plastic for a couple of weeks to create a greenhouse effect at the bottom of the plant when they start to grow in the ground, in part because it reduces transplant shock. They do not cut off the offshoots which sprout out, but tuck them back inside the cage.
The Manaughs prefer heirloom varieties of tomatoes, despite the fact that they are more susceptible to disease. Their tastes are broad, however. One year they planted 21 different varieties of tomatoes! Their two favorites are "Stupice," a Czech variety which produces the earliest fruit that can be picked as soon as Memorial Day, and is versatile for use in slicing, drying, roasting or making sauce, and "Brandywine," an Amish heirloom with great flavor that can produce fruit weighing 1 to 1-1/2 pounds.
For heirloom plants, Mike and Carrie recommend the Marina del Rey Garden Center. For seeds and supplies try Southern Exposure Seeds Company. Tomato Grower's Supply Co. has a free catalog - 1-888-478-7333
Nina is a garden designer by trade and self-proclaimed "plant nut" who has established a seed inventory and storage system in her refrigerator. Nina starts everything from seed. An OVF member since 1991, she uses heavy duty ziplock bags with a gel desiccant available from mail order sources to preserve the seeds before planting.
Like the Manaughs, Nina uses fluorescent tubes in shop lights which she has hung on metal bookshelves in her living space. The lights are hung about 3" from the seedlings at first and then manually moved up as the seedlings grow. The plants are also "stepped up" to larger pots as they grow; for example, when the starter is about 3" high, it will be placed in a 3" pot. Nina starts her seeds in mid-March and waits until the soil is warm at the end of May (around Memorial Day) to put the plants in the ground. She uses a soil thermometer to determine the optimal 70-degree temperature for planting.
When they are planted in the ground, the tomato starts are put in 2-3" deeper than they were in the pot, as the tomatoes will put out roots from the stem for a stronger plant. Common mistakes made include planting too early when the ground is too cool, and planting the tomatoes too shallow.
Nina uses her own compost and "Tomatoes Alive" fertilizer obtained from Gardens Alive, a favorite mail order source. (Tel 1-812-537-8650) Gardener's Supply provides Nina with the really sturdy square cages that she swears by. When the plants are young, they like lots of water - twice a week or more, but then she suggests watering deeply once a week after setting of the fruit. If the plants are over-watered, the tomatoes will be mushy or watery-tasting. The plants should be watered from below when they are flowering in order to keep from washing off the pollen that ensures fruit production.
When the plants are about two feet tall, she cuts (doesn't pull) the leaves from the ground level up to about one foot. This helps control disease from spores splashing up. And after about a month of growth, Nina puts down 8 layers of the newspaper with holes cut through for water drainage and covers it with mulch or compost. When the plants are young and growing, they are fertilized with fish emulsion and kelp a couple of times, but once they start setting fruit, they should not be fertilized because leaf growth will occur at the expense of fruit.
Nina grew 12 varieties of tomatoes last year, but has limited herself to 5 favorites this year: " San Remo," a big plant that bears big fruit and is her standard paste tomato; "Italian Gold," a gold paste tomato which, like "San Remo," is also good fresh; "Orange Sun Gold," a big cherry tomato; "Clear Pink Early," which produces in about 55 days; and a Russian heirloom called "Black Plum," a large plant with clusters of egg-shaped fruit with a tangy, sweet flavor. and kelp a couple of times, but once they start setting fruit, they should not be fertilized because leaf growth will occur at the expense of fruit. Her favorite resources are:
The OVF President has been fascinated with tomatoes since his involvement in the restaurant business in New York and later in California, where there was always a wide variety of tomato dishes featured on the menus.
An OVF member since 1997, Frank initially started his own plants from seed before he had his plot here, and ordered 15 to 20 different varieties the first year, sprouting them at home in a south-facing window. He used mail order at that time because he didn't know a source of fancy tomatoes, but has since favored Windrose Farms in Paso Robles.
Inasmuch as Fusarium wilt is the biggest tomato disease problem at Ocean View Farms (a soil-borne disease), Frank recommends pruning aggressively including the side shoots the first month to six weeks; he strips the bottom of the plant so the leaves don't come in contact with the soil. Once the plant is well established, though, he stops pruning. He also recommends rotating the planting area for tomatoes every 1-2 years, using a different section of the garden as space allows to obtain healthier plants. Remember to keep the leaves off the dirt to avoid spore migration.
This year, Frank is trying two new ideas for growing superior tomato plants. His first technique was to remove the bottom from 15-gallon black planter pots, dug holes and buried the pots to the lip. He lined them with aluminum foil in order to bring light into the bottom of the pot and set his starts with a soil mix in the bottom of the pot at a low level. As the plants grew, he filled the pot with more rich soil mix, and did this three times until the plants reached about 18 inches above ground level, their roots being about 1 foot under the soil.
The second new approach is the "greenhouse method" which is like an oversized version of a plastic-wrapped cage. Since fog is a major factor in bringing disease to tomatoes, the plastic helps the plants heat up and dry out faster when the sun does come out. He built a tall temporary structure with an opening and a pathway for access to plants, added manure to beds, put the plants directly into the ground, and used 36" "pallet wrap," which is like Saran Wrap, to wrap around the structure. He thinks the temperature inside the greenhouse is about 10 degrees warmer than outside.
Frank is growing 16 tomato varieties. His favorites are "Brandywine," "Green Zebra," and "Lemon Boy," one of the best and most reliable producers.
I have been growing tomatoes in Mar Vista for the past 25 years and have been a member of OVF since its inception. I do not claim to be an expert but I've done a lot of research and have had a lot of experience through trial and error which I would like to share with other gardeners.
In the past 5 years, I've noticed that success in growing tomatoes at OVF has become more challenging. I find that hybrid tomatoes are by far more successful than the popular heirloom varieties which become diseased early in the season. Celebrity is my favorite variety. It is VFFNT. This means this plant has been bred to be resistant to Verticillum Wilt, Fusarium Wilt 1 & 2, Root Knot Nematodes and Tomato Mosaic. This tomato has a good sweet flavor, is intermediate in size and has a tender skin. My second choice is Big Beef which is also VFFNT resistant but is larger than the Celebrity.
Based on my research with tomato diseases, it appears that the OVF soil has become infested with Late Blight (but it occurs early in the season). I have been more successful when I planted tomatoes later in the season and protected the plant from soil splashing upon the leaves (although it also appears to be transmitted through the air). I previously have planted tomatoes as early as February and had ripe tomatoes by early June. Now I have discovered more success in planting tomatoes in April when the soil is warmer and they grow faster. Planting tomatoes in a different location is best but somewhat impossible for those who have only one plot. Replacing the immediate soil with good compost is important and then I cover this with a mulch. I have tried cocoa mulch, store bought ground cover, volcanic rock (this is used successfully in the Canary Islands), but have found that the red plastic is the most successful. The plastic has been researched by Climson University and Gardeners Supply Co. in Vermont. The red plastic not only protects the tomatoes from the soil splashing on the plant, but also ripens and sweetens the tomatoes and protects the plants from organisms. Watering the plant can be done through small holes in the plastic or by using the aqua cones attached to a large soda bottle which are filled with water.
Additives to the soil which I feel are helpful include Epsom salts which provide magnesium, and ground up eggshells which helps to produce calcium. Even watering and adequate calcium helps to prevent black rot on the bottom of the tomatoes. Staking tomatoes also helps them from touching the soil. I use tomato cages. I also break off the lower leaves and the first few suckers thus making the plant grow taller and this also strengthens the stem. Suckers are the new growth which occurs between the leaves and the stem. Eliminating all suckers will reduce the number of tomatoes produced, but will also make the remaining tomatoes larger.