Tomatoes are the king of the garden – proof that you can produce food that is among the best in the world. Here is a quick guide to growing great tomatoes in Southern California.
I have been growing my own tomatoes for more than 15 years and have figured out what works best for me. I live in the San Fernando Valley but what I do is applicable to most of Southern California, which includes Sunset Zones 18 – 23.
More content coming soon.
Finding the right location is critical to growing great tomato plants and maximizing yield. Tomatoes like the heat and as much sun as possible. Ideally, tomatoes should be grown in full sun for 8 hours per day. You can do it with less sun (as little as 5 or 6 hours per day, as I do) and still get good results, but 8+ hours is ideal.
I plant my tomatoes in both raised beds and large containers as I like to have lot of plants each year. When planning out your garden, keep in mind crop rotation. Particularly for tomatoes, annual rotation is important to improve yield and minimize the risk of soil-borne diseases. Ideally you should have a 4-year rotation but in a small backyard garden that can be tough. Even just having 2 locations and alternating each year can help, which is what I do.
Once you’ve determined that you have a good location, you need to figure out the optimal time to plant. If you’re sowing from seed, you should start them indoors from January through March (starting approximately 8 weeks before last frost). You can then transplant your seedlings into your garden from March through June. If you have a coldframe or greenhouse, start even earlier, in December.
I typically buy plants at the local nursery (4″ containers) and put my first ones in the ground in March and then add more plants approximately every 3 weeks so that my harvest times are well staggered and my severe heat risk is lessened. For the first plants in March, I typically put clear plastic on the ground for a couple of weeks prior to planting to warm the soil. I then use Wallo’Water Plant Protectors to create a temporary greenhouse.
Given our ideal climate in Southern California, there are virtually hundreds of tomato varieties to choose from. Having experimented with dozens of different tomatoes over the years, I have concluded that I want to use varieties that are very easy to grow and that provide great yields. Thus, I often pick hybrids like Early Girl, Better Boy, Big Beef, Yellow Pear and Momotaro. This year I’m trying out Jetsetter, which got a lot of great press in 2012.
Tomatoes should be planted roughly 24″ to 36″ apart depending on the variety. It’s important to give them space to allow better sun exposure and provide adequate air circulation, which lessens the chance of disease outbreaks.
When you’re ready to put the plants into the ground, dig a hole much deeper than the root ball so you can bury a few inches of the stem. Roots will develop from that buried part of the stem creating a healthier and higher yielding plant. After your plants are in the ground you should stake them or use tomato cages.
Tomato fruit is 95 percent water and they need a lot of water to develop. Tomatoes should be watered every 5 – 7 days. Watering should be deep, soaking the root ball. As you start seeing fruit on your plants, you should water less frequently so that you don’t dilute the flavor. If you’re growing in containers, you will need to water more often, even daily when it’s extremely hot.
With regard to fertilizer, make sure you’ve properly amended the soil before planting. Once the plants are developing flowers you can fertilize once again. And don’t forget to pinch off the suckers. They steal away nutrients from the plant and don’t produce any fruit.
There are various pests, diseases and environmental disorders that can hurt your tomatoes. I have been fairly lucky over the years, having few problems with the exception of the occasional cutworm or mold. One of the best resources I’ve found for identifying and treating tomato problems is the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. Check it out at UCIPM Online.
For the best flavor let the fruit ripen fully on the vine. They should be full size and have deep color and be slightly soft. Hopefully you’ve planted multiple plants over several weeks so that you can get continuous fruit throughout the summer.
Eating and Processing
Tomatoes fresh off the vine are a real treat. When eating tomatoes uncooked, pick them as close as possible to the time you’ll be eating them. It’s best not to refrigerate as a cold tomato has less flavor. Another flavor tip: the seeds and jelly have more flavor than the meat or skin. So I never remove those when eating or making things like gazpacho.
More info on processing and preserving coming soon.
Here are some of our favorite web resources for growing tomatoes.
Steve Goto, the Tomato King, is an expert nurseryman and lecturer based in southern California. He uses organic gardening practices to grow over a 900 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables. Check out his site: Gotomato.us.com.
Tomatomania! is a must-have guide to hundreds of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes as well as a huge community of enthusiastic fellow tomato lovers and the world’s largest (and most fun) tomato seedling sale!