Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Tomatoes
Surfboards and suntan lotion, convertibles and beefsteak tomatoes: Life's great at the beach, isn't it?
Not always, at least not for gardeners who crave both a convenient hike to the shoreline and huge summer tomatoes.
In Ventura County areas that boast a truly warm season, it's a breeze to grow every type of tomato, especially the glorious and huge beefsteaks that for many people are the hallmark of summer.
Gardeners and home farmers in coastal Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Ventura, though, often can only dream about such a harvest. The reason: Breezy temperate climates may not provide the consistent higher temperatures larger tomatoes crave.
Tomatoes thrive in warm situations – six to eight hours of sun every day. In most coastal-area gardens, even if the sun shows up there's a lack of consistent heat. Cool nights, foggy days (or weeks) and daily breezes are the downfall of many a hopeful coastal gardener.
While I know of good gardeners who grow huge tomatoes within yards of the water, most coastal growers will have to choose cherry tomatoes or other smaller varieties suited for cooler climates.
But even tomatoes as large as a baseball – up to 12 ounces – can do fine. Try to resist those huge, late-season beefsteaks, as they may still be a challenge for you.
To get the upper hand near the coast, support your plants on a fence or other rigid structure that will allow you to spread them out as they grow. Each leaf will get more sunlight and each plant will perform to its maximum potential.
Most importantly, grow short-season varieties. "Short season," or early, tomatoes will flower and fruit in lower temperatures. Many of these varieties were found in, or bred for, cooler regions of the world. They will work for you; plus, if you planted in April you may be the first gardener in your neighborhood with tomatoes this season.
Some tips to help your green thumb when the skies are foggy gray:
• If the early season is truly cool and foggy, start later, or start again if the plants fail. Short season seedlings planted in late June, through July and even into August will flower and fruit in the fall.
• Many people will plant both early (March/April) and late (July), which is perhaps the best and most productive option. Plants started in July yield well into fall.
• Grow in containers. Use a large pot (at least 15 inches by 15 inches) that will drain well. (One plant per pot, please.) Soils warm up more quickly in pots, which gives you an edge. (Given additional water and fertilizer needs, growing in containers is a bit more work for the gardener.)
• Grow against a warm west- or south-facing wall. Retained or reflected heat helps meet the plants' need for warmth.
• Place your pots or plants inside a courtyard, fence or hedge. Blocking breezes can raise temps 10° or more.
• Create a temporary windscreen around your garden to accomplish the above. Shade cloth or light canvas works well, while still allowing crucial air circulation.
• Pinch more. Remove at least some of the side branching that appears where leaves meet a stem. The goal is to have more sun inside the plant and less shade cover, so the plant is warmer.
SUNSHINE OF YOUR LOVE
Here are some great tomato choices for coastal gardeners:
A small red Czech heirloom that's always on this sort of list, for good reason.
Beautiful small orange saladette tomato, often pink on the blossom end.
A smaller yellow paste variety, the first of this genre.
An heirloom cherry tomato that's red, productive and delicious.
One of a very sturdy bunch of heirlooms from the land of the same name.
FOURTH OF JULY
The small red hybrid that may beat them all to the salad bowl.
Remember that most cherry tomatoes will grow here, just as they will in warmer areas of the county. And, no, you won't find a two-pound pleated heirloom beefsteak on this initial list for coastal areas. But as you move toward making your garden warmer through the tips listed above, a larger tomato just may be in your future.
Daigre will expand on coastal growing and other tomato-growing details in his upcoming book, TOMATOMANIA! A Fresh Approach to Celebrating Tomatoes in the Garden and in the Kitchen (St. Martin's Press, early 2015). For more info, visit Tomatomania.com.