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Experts Share Tomato Secrets For Cool Coastal Gardens

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Written by Maria Gaura

Farm & Garden - Farm & Garden

SANTA CRUZ (April 2011) – Spring is finally here, and the shelves at local garden centers are overflowing with tomatoes – everything from grape-size cherries to hulking red slicers.
It’s tempting to load up on seedlings with the brawniest, most masculine names - maybe a Beefmaster, a couple of Brandywines, and a Mortgage Lifter. But before you do something you’ll regret in a few weeks, back away from the tomatoes! That’s right. Go home, think it over, and come back to the garden center when you’ve got a plan.
The fact is that we’re a beach town, and tomatoes – especially the big, beefy ones - prefer the triple-digit weather in Fresno. But advice from Santa Cruz garden experts Renee Shepherd, Christof Bernau and Cynthia Sandberg can help you grow amazing tomatoes anywhere in our tricky coastal zone.
“The first important thing is, don’t plant your tomatoes too early,” said Shepherd, founder and owner of Renee’s Garden Seeds. “Nurseries around here start selling tomatoes in March, but they’re not going to do well outdoors until the nighttime temperatures are evenly in the 50s.”
That means late April to mid-May in most of Santa Cruz County, and sometimes later. (Last spring wasmemorably dismal, with cold nights and rain that persisted through the entire month of May.)
While recent daytime temperatures have soared into the mid-80s, nighttimes have remained stubbornly in the low 40s, and downtown Santa Cruz was surprised by a rare snow flurry and pounding hail as recently as April 8th.
Many experienced gardeners can’t resist trying to get a jump on the season, but “we generally get tomatoes later than people think,” Shepherd said, with the local season peaking in September. “Vermont gets them earlier than we do.” (Montpelier is located 7 degrees of latitude - nearly 500 miles - further north than Santa Cruz.)
Shepherd advises choosing young, vigorous seedlings and avoiding plants that have developed buds, blossoms or fruit. “A plant that is already in flower is out of its natural cycle,” Shepherd said. “And a large plant will suffer more transplant shock” than a small one.
Once night temperatures have warmed, treat your tomatoes to the toastiest spot in the garden.
“The main thing that people in Santa Cruz need to consider is finding the brightest, sunniest location you’ve got, with good air circulation,” said Christof Bernau, garden manager for the UC Santa Cruz Farm. Heat not only helps tomatoes grow, it discourages tomato blight, a highly transmissible fungus commonly found in cool climates like ours.
“What promotes blight are cool temperatures and a wet (leaf) canopy – and we have that every morning through a good stretch of the summer, thanks to the fog,” Bernau said. “We can’t cure the fog, but we can trellis and cage our tomatoes up in the air so they dry faster, and even thin the canopy for better air circulation.”
(Tomato blight and other diseases can overwinter in the soil, so growing your tomatoes in a different garden bed every second year is a chemical-free way to keep blight from getting established in your yard.)
Another common mistake is choosing the wrong variety of tomato for your neighborhood. Santa Cruz is full of microclimates ranging from foggy beachfront to redwood forest, so in addition to keeping an eye on nighttime temperatures, home gardeners need to know how many hours of sunshine their garden receives each day.
Someone in Bonny Doon with eight hours of full sun can grow pretty much any type of tomato they choose, while a gardener in Capitola’s fog belt will be limited to smaller, early-season, blight-resistant varieties.
“The number one problem I hear about is people not growing the proper varieties for foggy conditions,” said Cynthia Sandberg, owner of Love Apple Farm, whose annual plant sale features 100 varieties of tomato seedlings.
“Size matters when it comes to tomatoes,” Sandberg said. “The small- and medium-fruited tomatoes do better here, and if you’re close enough to the coast, you may have to stick with cherry tomatoes.”
The majority of local microclimates will not favor large-fruited, long-season tomatoes like the Beefsteak, or many heirloom varieties, which also have the disadvantage of being susceptible to blight. Shepherd particularly dislikes San Francisco Fog, "because it's awful tasting and disease prone, and doesn't grow well near the coast," she said. "All it's got going for it is a great name."
But that leaves many delicious and colorful small-fruited varieties, both heirloom and hybrid,  to choose from. (See our experts’ list of great varieties below.)
Tomatoes of all kinds are heavy feeders, and do best in soil amended with large amounts of compost and manure. (In my garden, I add a five-gallon bucket of composted manure to each planting hole.)
In addition, Sandberg waters her tomatoes regularly throughout the growing season with “tea” made from worm castings dissolved in water. “It’s the best fertilizer I’ve ever run across, and it reduces plant diseases, too,” Sandberg said. “We love the stuff.
“Synthetic fertilizer is like buying Burger King or McDonalds to feed your tomatoes,” Sandberg said. “It’s garbage ... and you can taste it (in the tomatoes.) We use good organic fertilizer, and lots of it, because a plant can’t produce quality food out of nothing.”
Bernau recommends enriching the soil with long-lasting, slow release  organic fertilizers such as compost, blood and feather meal, instead of regular applications of liquid fertilizer. But “the idea of splits can be useful, where you amend the soil at planting time as well as midway through the season, just as the fruit set is about to begin,” he said.
The mid-season application of compost can be a “top-dressing,” which is simply spread on the ground around the plant’s root zone.
Water tomatoes consistently, every five to seven days, but cut back the amount by one-third when the plants begin to set fruit, to concentrate the flavor and avoid mushy-tasting tomatoes. By cutting back the water, but not the frequency of watering, you can avoid blossom-end rot - a condition where otherwise well-formed tomatoes begin to blacken and shrivel from the blossom end (the opposite end from where the stem is attached).
“We have cool nights, and that’s why it’s harder to grow good tomatoes here,” Shepherd said. “But with really good soil preparation and the proper conditions, it’s extremely easy to have an organic garden in Santa Cruz, and I believe that most people do.”
And if your backyard simply doesn’t get six hours of sunshine, “it’s perfectly easy to grow a few tomatoes in big containers,” Shepherd said. “Just use fresh potting soil every year, and make sure to water regularly.”
Best tomato varieties for Santa Cruz County
Renee Shepherd suggests:
For closest to the coast: Super Bush, Oregon Spring, Stupice
Cherry/Plum tomatoes: Juliet, Camp Joy Cherry, Sungold, Isis Candy, Black Cherry, Renee’s Garden Candy Cherries
Disease resistant hybrids for general use: Carmello, Early Girl, Better Boy, Celebrity
Heirlooms: Marvel Stripe, Black Krim, Persimmon, Cosoluto Genovese, Green Zebra, Chianti Rose
For foggy gardens Cynthia Sandberg also suggests:Camp Joy Cherry, Jaune Flamme, Black Ethiopian
For general coastal use Christof Bernau also suggests: New Girl, Early Girl, Oregon Spring, and most cherry and paste varieties. Good heirlooms include Cherokee Purple, Black Krim