Time to Plant (More) Tomatoes

Tips for healthier, hardier harvests with this craveable cover crop.

Sacramento gardeners spend their summer obsessing over one favorite crop: tomatoes. “Tomatoes are hugely popular here in ‘Sacratomato’ and they are about to take center stage in our summer gardens,” says Angela Pratt, owner of The Plant Foundry in Sacramento’s Oak Park. Her nursery stocks dozens of heirloom and hybrid varieties each season, beginning in March.

The turn of the calendar page to the summer months doesn’t mean it’s too late to plant tomatoes. “We pivot [in June] by also offering fully grown plants that have fruit on them for customers who like instant gratification or weren’t able to plant earlier in the season,” says Pratt. When planting late, choose larger plants and varieties that mature in under 75 days. Cherry tomatoes are a good choice.

“Sungold is one of our most popular cherry tomatoes, but also look at sun sugar and Barry’s crazy cherry,” says Pratt. Tomatoes planted late should be buried deep; new roots will form along the covered stem. Like early tomatoes, these late starters will benefit from a well-prepared bed. “If you’re growing tomatoes in the ground, be sure to mix in plenty of compost and certified-organic starter fertilizer or veggie fertilizer,” notes Pratt.

In terms of irrigation, Pratt offers this: “I like to use Water Right [non-toxic] drip hoses on a battery-operated faucet timer for ‘set it and forget it’ watering.” She advises gardeners to add a thick 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch, preferably shredded bark or compost, that will help to retain consistent soil moisture, which can prevent blossom end rot. “Mulch is a must in Sacramento,” she adds. “Not only does mulch conserve soil moisture, but it also protects roots from excessive heat, discourages weeds, and adds a finished look to planting beds.” 

Provide support for vines with stakes, ties, cages, tents or trellises, Pratt says. “Otherwise, you’ll end up with the Leaning Tower of Tomatoes that could come down during those occasional summer winds we get.” 

And as temperatures climb this summer, ensure tomatoes stay comfortable. “Keep in mind the fact that high temperatures can cause blossom drop and a halting of fruit formation,” Pratt warns. “Buffer heat with shade cloth, patio umbrellas, and strategic placement.”

As for fertilizing, Pratt starts early. “At planting time, I like to mix in E.B. Stone Organics Sure Start or Down to Earth’s Starter Mix because that’s the only opportunity I have to feed right at the roots,” she says. “Organic fertilizers break down gradually, so they act like a nice slow-release fertilizer that’s still environment friendly. I follow up monthly with Tomato & Vegetable or All-Purpose dry food, along with E.B. Stone’s organic liquid Fish Emulsion with Kelp for an as-needed foliar feeding and soil drench.”

Pratt gives her tomatoes a boost at first sign of yellow leaves or lack of vigor. Her smartphone is set up to provide monthly feeding reminders. Twice a week, she irrigates for 45 minutes using drip hoses hooked up to a timer. She checks container-grown plants, which dry out easily, daily. “On 100-plus degree days, I may need to water again in the afternoon,” she says. “The smaller the pot, the more often you have to water.” Skimping on pot size could leave gardeners at the plant’s beck and call.

Be on the lookout for pests like whitefly and tomato hornworms, or other problems. Leaves may be spotted, stippled, show signs of yellowing or being chewed on, or wilting. “You may also see fungal, bacterial, or dreaded viral diseases,” she adds. “[When buying tomato seedings] check plant tags for VFNT-resistant tomatoes that are resistant to the big culprits — verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus.” These tomatoes are bred to fend off those diseases. But if issues appear, get help at the first sign of trouble from the University of California’s integrated pest management website or contact a Sacramento Master Gardener.


What is an heirloom tomato? In a word, precious. With seeds handed down through  generations, heirloom varieties have grown many years without cross-breeding (mixing with other varieties) so their characteristics — full flavor, distinctive shape, and color — stay true. Conversely, hybrids have been cross-bred repeatedly to improve certain qualities, such as dependability, disease resistance, and quick maturity. For home gardeners, hybrids tend to be easier to grow than heirlooms and have higher yields, meaning they produce more tomatoes per bush.

More than 10,000 varieties of tomatoes are available to gardeners — each variety has its fans: Roma varieties make great sauce; beefsteaks are for slicing; cherry and grape tomatoes are meant for snacking. Not all tomatoes are red; orange, yellow and green-ripe varieties have less acid than their red counterparts and tend to taste sweeter.

The Plant Foundry’s Pratt grows many varieties each summer. “I like all types of tomatoes, but my heart has been stolen by gorgeously colored, full-flavored heirloom-style tomatoes,” she says. “Orange tomatoes are a weakness of mine because they tend to be super sweet and mild, and purple tomatoes are also favorites for their flavor complexity and beauty.”

Her favorite cherries include sungold, sun sugar, and Barry’s crazy cherry. Her favorite slicer is Hawaiian pineapple. She also recommends the popular medium hybrid, early girl, for what she calls “a safe bet,” and longtime favorite heirloom costoluto genovese for its “frilliness.” 

“Always plant at least one variety you’ve never grown before,” she adds, “because discovery is part of the joy of growing tomatoes, and it’s how you’ll find new favorites.”