Springtime in Marin County is one of my favorite seasons in the garden. After a long winter’s rains, all of the plants are sprouting new growth and blooming. This is also the time when I plant my annual tomato crop, an assortment of 20 or so varieties that provide an abundant harvest in the summer. From what I saw last week, gardeners are out in full force buying plants and fertilizers. I thought I’d write about my own experience and provide tips on how to have a winning crop of delicious Marin tomatoes.
Marin tomato growers are passionate about their gardens, from where they buy their plants to what types of soil amendments to use to how best to plant their tomatoes. Some like to buy them at the annual and extremely popular Marin Master Gardener’s Tomato Market which takes place each year in April. At this market, which serves as the annual fundraiser for the Marin Master Gardeners, you can purchase new varieties which you likely won’t find at your local garden center, and you can ask the gardeners on site for advice on best varieties for your specific conditions. This sale is very popular each year and avid gardeners line up early to make their purchases before they run out. This year I decided buy mine at West End Nursery, a family owned nursery in San Rafael’s West End Neighborhood since 1909.
Tip: You may also want to check out my blog article “The Best Tomato Plants to Grow in Marin County” as you are selecting your tomato plants.
In past years, I have purchased my seedlings from a number of sources, including Sloat Garden Center (3 locations in the county), Home Depot, and Green Jeans Garden Supply in Mill Valley. They all have their pros and cons, but this year I decided on West End partly because of their excellent selection and partly because I had a broker’s open house to attend nearby. West End makes it all easy – from the many carts near the entrance to the plastic to protect your car at the exit. Julio, one of their employees, expertly loaded the many bags of soil amendments into my trunk with a smile.
Update on 4/2021: I had difficulty finding my beloved Cherokee Purple locally so I went up to Big Ranch Farms in Napa and it’s going to be one of my new favorite spots. The selection and plant size were amazing, and they grow all their tomatoes organically from seed. Pricing is very similar to the nurseries here in Marin and the plants were very large. Highly recommended!
The selection at West End Nursery is impressive. I bought twenty plants. This year’s lineup: Legend, Early Girl, Better Boy, Ace, Pruden’s Purple, Cherokee Purple (several – a favorite!), Beef Steak, San Francisco Fog, Mr. Stripey (a great name!), New Girl, Nebraska Wedding and Black Cherry. If you have a moment, click on some of the links — I find the stories behind the different varieties fascinating.
One of my favorites the Cherokee Purple, which produces a tangy purplish-red fruit. It is a prolific producer and always a crowd pleaser at summer BBQ’s. It pairs nicely with the Black Cherry, which looks like a small cherry version of the Cherokee Purple. In years past I have had a hard time finding both of these, but this year I saw them at both Sloat and West End. You don’t often find heirloom varieties such as these at the larger chain stores.
Marin Tomatoes: Preparing The Soil
There are many soil amendments to consider when planting your garden. I have tried a number of products to enrich and replace the nutrient-starved clay soil that is so common in our gardens. When I planted my first garden years ago, I removed a great deal of clay soil and replaced it with turkey mulch from Grab ‘N Grow Soil in Santa Rosa. It was so full of nutrients the neighbors remarked they could smell it down the street! The plants loved it. This year I chose to use “Paydirt” which the owner of West End recommended. I combined that with some bone meal to add calcium (to help prevent blossom-end rot) and some EB Stone Organics “Sure Start.”
One word of warning – if you use a soil amendment like “Paydirt,” pictured above, make sure that you mix it well with your existing soil or regular potting soil before you plant. Otherwise, if used full strength, it will burn the seedlings and you will have to start all over again. Remember, it’s an amendment, not a potting mix.
Experts recommend rotating your crops each season when planting because they leach so many nutrients out of the soil. They also recommend planting beans (such as Fava beans) in the winter and allowing them to decompose in your garden to replace nitrogen and nutrients. I never seem to find the time in the winter to do this but I do spend a lot of time preparing the soil before I plant.
Pictured above is my garden with my roses in the distance. I usually leave the cages and stakes up over winter so I can remember where to place each plant. Generally, preparation of the space includes:
- Removing all the weeds that have grown in over the winter
- Remove soil from prior year’s tomato plants
- Treat remaining top soil with copper fungicide to try to eliminate any overwintering spores
- Amend soil with products like “Paydirt” and “Loam Builder”
- Replacing any stakes that may be in poor condition
- Inspecting plant cages to make sure welds are in good shape
- Treat plot with bone meal to provide calcium
Tomato Planting: How Low Can You Grow?
Once the plot is prepared, it’s time to dig holes and plant the tomatoes. I dig the holes about a foot deep and a foot wide, then fill them with good soil mixed with bone meal and Sure Start fertilizer. Beyond soil amendment — which is critical in this part of the country — the other major tip is to make sure you plant the plants deep. If you look at the picture to the left, you can see the little “hairs” that protrude from the stalk near the soil. The trick is to remove the first few rows of leaves and plant the tomato plant deep in the soil — covering up those hairs which will turn into roots and make a stronger plant.
Some avid growers advise leaving the plants on their sides for a week so the tops of the plants turn up towards the sun, then planting them horizontally in the holes to maximize root coverage. I have never had the patience or the courage to try this.
It seems counter-intuitive to remove leaves from such a small plant and then bury it so deep in the soil, but trust me, they will thrive if you do this.
Once planted, you may be tempted to wait a few weeks to put cages around the plants. I would recommend you do this at planting — the plants will grow very quickly and will need those cages sooner than you think. You want to train them right away to grow vertically and not spread out horizontally in your garden.
I begin fertilizing right away with fish emulsion fertilizer, available in most garden centers, and my tomatoes seem to love that. I keep a close eye out for signs of disease or distress and apply organic solutions when needed. Also during the initial growing season, it is important to trim shoots the plant is sending out and pinch off early blooms to allow the plant to direct its energy towards root and stem growth. Read more about pruning here.
To the right (or above if you’re on mobile) you see one of my newly planted specimens. As you can see, it’s on drip, it’s caged and there are two stakes per cage to provide stability during windy conditions. Earlier in the growing season I supplement the drip with foliar feeding. Later in the season, when plants are more susceptible to fungus, I minimize foliar feeding and provide additional moisture at the root level.
When I’m not growing tomatoes here in Marin County, I’m a top Marin real estate agent and would be happy to discuss your real estate needs with you. I am also always open to gardening advice! Feel free to contact me using the below contact form, or call / text me at 415.847.5584. Wishing you a bountiful harvest this summer!