Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

No tomato before its time

Gardeners get itchy in spring. The hand tries to wrap itself around a trowel uncontrollably, against the better judgment of the gardener, like something out of an old horror movie. We may know, rationally, that the risk of planting out tomatoes and other warm-season vegetables in cold soil with a chance of frost is too great, but garden centers are prematurely full of  tempting transplants that seem to give off hallucinogenic fumes.

After our bizarrely warm March, local garden centers rushed to stock up too fast. Some gardeners succumbed. Then a brisk cooldown in April brought things more or less back on track (at least for plants that hadn’t already bloomed six weeks early). But some of those besotted gardeners still couldn’t face the truth and planted their tomatoes a month early, to shiver and stall until it’s really warm enough to grow. Smarter gardeners kept their seedlings safely protected; fortunate ones kept them in a greenhouse.

Since I got a late start in starting seeds, I didn’t have that problem. My tomato transplants are nowhere near ready. I’ll have to wait until a truly appropriate time – late May or even early June.

This year, I’m all about determinate tomatoes. I grow all my vegetables in containers, so I’ve given up on sprawling indeterminate heirloom varieties. I need plants that are bushy and compact and will keep the harvest with safe distance. When I tried heirlooms I found myself stretching  over the porch railing trying to reach the ripest tomatoes – which didn’t seem like a wise move when I looked straight down four stories to the alley below.

Let’s face it: There’s a sacrifice in flavor when you choose determinate hybrids over heirloom tomatoes. But with heirlooms available at the farmers market (albeit at breathtaking prices) I decided to quit risking my life for the taste of ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Green Zebra’.

I’m also all about small-fruited tomatoes – mostly cherries such as ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Red Robin’ and ‘Sweet Baby Girl’. The reason is simple: With the patterns of shade cast by the porch roof, posts and railings, I’m playing the angles to give tomatoes anything approaching full sun. Small-fruited varieties have a chance of eking out enough sunlight to ripen, but for beefsteak and slicing tomatoes there’s no hope.

A reasonable person might ask: Since you obviously don’t have the proper growing conditions for tomatoes, why are you trying? Well, can anybody else resist the temptation to grow tomatoes? It’s the first vegetable most new gardeners try, as finicky as it is. A summer without homegrown tomatoes is unthinkable.

The old mantra still applies, as anywhere in the garden: Choose the right plant for the right place. I’ve had to learn (mostly by trial and error) what my conditions really are and steel myself to pick only varieties that will work. Or probably work. Or be somewhat likely to work. Those premature planters aren’t the only ones with delusions.