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January 5, 2012 at 8:17 AM

The secret to great tomatoes (Hint: Get growing now)


Photo by Harley Soltes, from The Urban Farm Handbook (Skipstone, 2011)

My usual stretch of New Year’s “gardening” involves taking my favorite seed catalog out of the mailbox and dreaming of summer. Guess there’s a reason I wind up harvesting more green tomatoes than ripe ones. Lucky for me that Carnation-ian Annette Cottrell and Ballardite Joshua McNichols have collaborated on “The Urban Farm Handbook,” including strategies to harvest heaps of even slower-growing varieties like San Marzanos and Purple Calabashes in our drizzly Northwest yards.

The two agree on most tactics for growing and making your own food, such as when the book gets into grinding your own grains or creating local bulk-buying clubs or slaughtering roosters. But on tomatoes, they go different routes. Josh’s tactics will yield larger quantities, they write, but Annette’s ripen a full six weeks earlier, getting you juicy red tomatoes from late May all through the summer. No contest for me. Here’s how the book describes her game plan:

1. Mid-January: Start tomatoes indoors, from seeds.

2. April 1: Prepare gardening bed by laying out “T-tape” irrigation and covering soil with red plastic to increase the soil temperature.

3. Mid-April: Transplant starts, one plant for every 2-by-2 foot area. Immediately cover plants with cloches (you can make your own — Annette recommends metal hoop frames and clear plastic, but milk jugs work too). Place bricks or rocks and water-filled milk jugs between the vines to absorb heat during the day and radiate it by night.

4. Mid-May: When night lows exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit, remove cloches. Prune indeterminate plants to central stem and stake them. Remove suckers on determinate plants and cage them. Immediately surround bed on north and east sides with 24-inch high walls made from reflective galvanized metal roofing. When plants fruit and begin to ripen, erect 24-inch high corrugated metal panels on west and south sides to keep away rats. Light reflected off metal walls will bounce around as in a “solar tube” skylight and metal will heat up the garden bed like a solar oven.

5. Late May to early June: Harvest first perfect tomato.

6. Early to mid-July: Harvest buckets of large, ripe tomatoes.

7. July 1: Give indeterminate plants a haircut. Cut off flowering branches just beyond the last fruits, to encourage the plant to focus its energy on ripening existing fruit and not making new fruit that will not ripen before fall.

8. Aug. 1: Stop watering. Compose haiku: “Tomatoes in Seattle…Whose will ripen first? Annette’s will, that’s whose.”

And, hopefully, now yours will too. Even if you don’t follow the full regimen, I would bet that cloches and water-filled milk jugs alone would buy you some extra-sweet Sungolds. Happy gardening, and may the predictions of Cliff Mass shine upon us!



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