You Can Grow Tomatoes in the East Bay
Success takes some planning, the right seeds, and the right place in your yard, but they will take.
Think of heirloom tomatoes—they’ve long proven themselves—as Darwin’s winners, with taste tacked on.
Photo by V. Zaitsev
Imagine a world without tomatoes. Tomatoes function as the backbone of hundreds of dishes—yet they’re ambrosia on their own, without even a dollop of olive oil and crumbled feta. Here in the East Bay, our variable summers can make growing tomatoes challenging, but I never go a year without starting at least five or six varieties. Some only manage to ripen a few fruit, but whatever graces your table is a treat and a blessing.
If you want to grow some goodies, you have multiple choices—so many that it may seem daunting. What kind of space and sun can you provide? Do you have a south-facing wall or fence? Or are you restricted to a container on a deck or porch? No matter; there is a tomato for you.
Think about it this way: You want to give your tomatoes sun. Don’t choose a spot where they’ll spend the afternoon shaded by your house. Plant them on the south or west side of your property. You might want to think about a large container (wine barrels are nice) or a raised bed, as that soil tends to warm up more quickly, and tomatoes like warm soil.
Indeterminate vs. Determinate
Determinates bear a big crop all at once, while indeterminates ripen fewer tomatoes at a time but bear for a longer season. In the East Bay, we might have three weeks of fog followed by three weeks of sun. Your determinate still might flush a decent load, but it can be impacted by chilly skies. The indeterminate will be thrilled once the sun comes back out.
Space is also a factor. Determinates are smaller and less rangy, while indeterminates just keep growing, wrapping around garden furniture, and trailing over paths. Try splitting the difference: Start a few indeterminates at the beginning of the season, but plant out a couple of determinate transplants early in July. They’ll be rounding into form during our warm falls, and you might get the best of both worlds.
Heirlooms Are the Rage for a Reason
Heirlooms were saved for your pleasure because people a hundred or more years ago found them unbelievably delicious. Also, they grew well year after year, not succumbing to diseases and rot. Think of them as Darwin’s winners, with taste tacked onto natural selection.
That said, you don’t need to be slavish about it. America’s favorite cherry, Sun Gold, is not an heirloom. However, the fact that it’s almost sickeningly sweet might say something unfortunate about today’s tastes.
Ah, Those Colors!
Tomato colors aren’t just there to vivify a salad or hors d’oeuvres plate; they correlate to taste. The darker varieties of browns with green shoulders (mostly associated with Russian and Ukrainian varieties) have a smoky, rich taste, sort of like a fruity dark chocolate. Some of the yellows have far less acid than other tomatoes. The big reds can be delicious or blah. I’ve never cottoned to the whites, but some swear by them. Orange tomatoes often have a deep blush of pink inside, and are best for fresh eating, as they tend to be very juicy. Grow several different colors both for taste and for the plate. Recent varieties, bred in Napa and Sonoma counties, have great stripes and super names. Check out St. Helena’s Wild Boar Farms for some delicious and fun-looking tomatoes as well as older heirlooms used in the breeding process.
Size and Shape, Paste and Fresh
Big, plump tomatoes are nice on sandwiches. Cherries are great for salads. Lots of people like the look of pear tomatoes. In general, for the East Bay, cherries and the smaller, non-beefsteak tomatoes work best. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a chunky tomato—just that the giant beefsteaks are likely beyond our reach. But check out some large-sized tomatoes such as the French Marmande—great taste bred for a Mediterranean climate.
I know people who only grow paste tomatoes. Perhaps auntie canned, or one has fond memories of Marlon Brando stumbling through the trellises. I ignore paste tomatoes altogether, but I get it if you really want some nonjuicy fruits to stew and can. My favorite way of preserving tomatoes, and this works with paste or fresh, is to slice ’em up, cook them down with olives, garlic, and herbs, and then seal up the sauce in bags to freeze. Those individual packets pulled from your freezer are so welcome on a cold winter night.
Hybrids (those that say “F1”) will not come true, so don’t bother saving their seeds. The heirlooms are unlikely to cross, so you can probably get away with saving seeds from your favorites, even if they’re near an heirloom of a different variety. Pick out an excellent specimen—good size, color, taste—scoop out some seeds along with the gelatinous stuff in the seed pockets, and put the whole shebang on a piece of plastic, like a cottage cheese lid. You want it to sit around until you see mold on the seeds or they dry out. Then wash them off, cleaning off detritus as you go, and let them dry on a cloth towel. When absolutely dry, store in an envelope. Next year you’ll have that lovely tomato again, a bit more adapted to your yard and climate. And yes, you can plant tomatoes in the same place the following year.
My Top Five in No Particular Order
Japanese Black Trifele: It’s not Japanese, and it’s not black. It’s a dark brown with tiny green shoulders, possibly the best tasting of the Russians. It’s also gorgeous and uniform, so a bowl is a treasure in itself.
Big Rainbow: A beautiful tomato, yellow and orange, with a spreading rose-colored blotch on the butt end. Slicing into it reveals marbling of rose and red. Juicy, rich, and fruity.
Cherokee Chocolate: A better-tasting sport of Cherokee Purple. If I could only grow one tomato, this would be it. Oregon’s Victory Seeds carries it.
Lillian’s Yellow: For those not fond of acidic tomatoes, Lillian’s, though late bearing and somewhat sparse, spawns meaty, pale yellow tomatoes of incomparable taste.
Nepal: Gotta have a red, right? Nepal is often the earliest to bear, and it just goes on with its incredibly dense, old-fashioned, intense tomato taste.
This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.