"Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes!
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy,
And that's true love & homegrown tomatoes."
Lyrics by John Denver

Tomato Growing Basics along the North Coast

We're going to jump a little bit ahead here, if you don't read any further or remember anything else about tomatoes, remember this: Don't store any tomatoes in the refrigerator. Storing ripe tomatoes below 55°F causes a chemical break down. They will get mealy and they will lose their flavor. Pick (or buy) what you can use up in a few days and show them off on the dining room table.

John Denver wasn't just making up those nice lyrics, there really isn't anything like a homegrown tomato. The tomatoes you buy at the supermarket have quite a story to tell - the taste has been bred out of them. They're designed to have thick skins to handle the bruising they receive while being picked, sorted and transported, and to survive the rigors of shipping to the wholesalers and then to the store. Harvesting green tomatoes and then artificially ripening them using an ethylene gas treatment destroys the fruit's flavor. Of course they taste pretty bland.

The best tomatoes are grown just outside your kitchen door. Remember what was said - don't store them in the refrigerator? It's heaven on earth if they ripen on the plant and you pick them as you need them. Grandma used to do it that way. You could SMELL the tomatoes as she brought them indoors and you practically needed a bib to eat them, and they tasted soooo good.

So, how does one go about growing tomatoes in Humboldt County? If you're inland a bit, you're lucky. Tomatoes are a tropical fruit and like it sunny and warm. You can grow most any tomato variety. But if you live on the cool, foggy coast, take heart, you can still grow them. See "Where to plant your tomatoes" for the best location in your garden.

Everybody has space in which to tuck in some tomato plants. If you do not have enough room to let them sprawl on the ground, train them upright on a post, or tie them to a trellis like a climbing rose! This keeps the fruit off the ground and clean. Plants grown on the ground may spread to cover four square feet apiece, but upright they will need only one to two feet. They thrive on warmth and need a long growing season in which to mature--3 1/2 to 4 months from the time seed is sown.

You can start the seed indoors while the weather is cold, in order to get a head start, but it is easier to buy started plants from a garden store when the proper setting-out time arrives. Have at least one or two plants of an extra-early ripening variety. See "Choosing the Right Tomato Varieties for Your Garden". When transplanting, set the plants deeper than they were before, to encourage additional roots to form along the underground part of the stem. If it is leggy, lay the stem sideways before burying it. Planting it too deep will slow the plant down because the soil temperature down there will take longer to warm up. Feed about every three weeks, beginning two or three weeks after planting. Water generously and evenly. A mulch to cover the soil around the base of the plants will keeps the roots cool, and if any fruit rests on it they will be kept clean.

If you are growing the plants on stakes, begin tying them into position (using a strong strip of fabric), when they are 8 to 10 inches high. Keep at it, for they climb almost like vines to a height of six to eight feet. Remove sucker shoots that develop in all crotches between leaf branches and the main stem. Left alone, these would become big branches and make the plant too heavy to stay in place on the stake.

Any green tomatoes remaining on the plants when frost threatens in autumn can be picked and brought indoors to ripen.

NEXT: What Variety of Tomato Should I Plant?