Mixed Greens Blog

Mixed Greens Blog
Living Sustainably in the Pacific Northwest


Determined to Grow Indeterminates

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You know what I mean. Those big juicy beefsteak-type tomatoes that require the support and love only a Southerner living in the Northwest can give. Don’t ask me why I have this need to try to grow tomatoes in the face of enormous odds. As Valerie Easton said in her Tips for growing organic tomatoes in the Northwest, ” the cold truth is that the Seattle area ranks next-to-lowest in the nation for annual heat units, the measure of what tomatoes require to ripen.” The “next-to-lowest” ??? I guess there’s the hope that this year will be different. After all, there was a colder spring, what, only 30 years ago.

Still, I feel like I’ve been planning the homecoming of cherished newborns. Will they be warm enough? How should I decorate the nursery? Will I need to have a feeding schedule? Should I splurge and get the fancy stroller with the plastic rain cover? Valerie says, “the ideal is a raised bed basking in reflected heat off a south-facing wall.” Well, that’s not going to happen but how about a newly-created southwest facing bed next to the roses and close to the compost pile? I can keep an eye on them growing happily just outside my studio window.

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One sunny day a few weeks ago I went into backyard boot camp mode and started ruthlessly removing sod in anticipation of the arrival of my sturdy little plants. My vision is to ultimately grow enough tomatoes to dry some, make jars of sauce and eat tomato sandwiches until I can’t take any more. I plan to mix it up — some hybrids, an heirloom or two, determinates, indeterminates and of course, the petite, sweet sungolds.

I’d been prepping Charlie for the plant sale at Seattle Tilth for a few days. He’d answer by muttering words like, “mad house” and “parking nightmare”. But I’d already printed out the plant list and circled my favorites — Czechoslovakian, Russian, all from my ancestral home. When the weekend rolled around, I couldn’t find anyone willing to stand in line in the rain. So I went on my own and found plenty of other determined gardeners with the same goal in mind.

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If you didn’t make it to the Tilth Sale, don’t worry. At the University Farmers Market, Billy’s Organic has some big beautiful tomato starts and Langley Fine Gardens has some of the more unusual varieties.

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How do I plan to support these little tomato plants? I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. I know it sounds rigid but from all I’ve read, cages seem to be the best alternative, at least for the indeterminates. I’ll try to think of them as play pens instead. Margaret Roach in her blog, A Way to Garden, points out that while “staked plants will ripen faster crops of generally larger fruit, caged plants are easier to care for, and in the longterm may produce heavier yields.” She mentions the added convenience of using the cage as a support for plastic just in case, heaven forbid, we have our usual June gloom.

And what about food and water? I worked some organic tomato fertilizer and compost into the soil before planting. I’m also planning to put some mulch down or maybe even that bright red plastic, once the soil warms up. Tomatoes need to be watered consistently and don’t like to get their leaves wet so I’ll water the roots deeply. I’ll use some liquid fish fertilizer around the 1st of June and then again on July 1st.

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Now that my babies are all tucked into their little bed, I can finally relax. I hope to get plenty of advice from more experienced tomato-growers so if you have some to give, please don’t hold back. Otherwise, I’ll rely on my intuition and common sense because that’s just the kind of mother I am.

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11 Responses »

  1. The best way to support your tomato plants is with The Tomato Stake.


    Easier to use than metal cages or upside down planters, stronger than bamboo and won’t rot like wood stakes. The built-in twist-tie supports make tying your tomato plants easy!

  2. The one compensation for living through the blistering, humid NC summers is the melt-in-your-mouth, red, rich early girls we can grow. We have to have a reason for staying where July and August are unbearable! On the other hand, it creates a perfect excuse for travelling to the Pacific Northwest in July, August or Sept.!!!

  3. I live up on camano Island, and I am bitten by the same bug as you. All I can think of is tomatoes of my own. Margaret Roach of A way to Garden, suggested Russian tomatoes. I have planted seeds of different early or extra early tomatoes and I am hoping. I think Seattle has three degree days.

  4. I stood in line for 45 minutes! Well worth it, though. What an amazing group of dedicated gardeners – is it always as crowded??!

  5. Oh, also – we found last year our best tomatoes were the sub-arctic varieties. We’re trying those plus Russian and Alaskan varieties this year.

  6. I’m glad to see there are other tomato enthusiasts out there.
    BJ, don’t make me homesick! If this weather keeps up, you may have to bring some out to me in your suitcase.
    Radish, keep us posted and let us know how your varieties do on Camano.
    Melinda, the Tilth Sale is usually very crowded. I got there around 1 on Sat. and there wasn’t a wait but some varieties were sold out by then. Which sub-arctic varieties did well for you last year?

  7. Poppy, I too love a big juicy beefsteak tomato. There’s no better tomato for slicing thin and topping a burger. We’re blessed in this region–but not with tomatoes. Still, I choose to grow beefsteaks every year hoping one or two will remind me of the Jersey tomatoes of my youth, or even those grown out by the little airport 10 minutes from my childhood CT home. Otherwise it’s cherry maters, sungold, sweet 100s, etc.

  8. Fortunately, there isn’t a “vegetable police” – come to think of it they just handed me my newborn children as well with never a thought as to whether I was capable of raising them?!! I’m pleased to say the kiddos are nearly grown and almost out the door…tomatoes, well I keep experimenting and adapting to whatever our fickle growing climate throws my way.

    I’ve had great luck training the plants up a string like the vine that they are. (picture the way you would grow pole beans) Yes, this involves a bit more fiddling and fussing to prune the plant to 1 or 2 dominant branches and you need to wind it yourself around the string as tomatoes are not “self-twining”, but seriously, we don’t parent passively, why would we husband our precious “love apples” with any less attention?!

    Another benefit of this method of training is that the plants get maximum air circulation and the ripening fruit is fully exposed to what little summer sun we get. Me…I mostly choose this way because I can get away with spacing the plants even closer in the garden. Like a little kid, I want “More, more, more!”

    Fortunately, you don’t have to put the trellis in place just yet. One thing cages are fabulous at is protecting the young’uns from cold, wind and generally lousy weather. Just wrap the perimeter of the cage in plastic. Some people use dry cleaning bags – but who dry cleans anymore?! I suggest bubble wrap, an environmental nightmare that we have to use, and use, and use again to keep it in action and out of the landfill. The double-wall construction of this bad boy is actually PERFECT at producing high-tech greenhouse conditions within your tomato chimney. There no real need to cover the top of the cage as its’ interior will stay nice and cozy until such time as temperatures warm enough to remove it.

    Ah, can’t you just taste the first fruit?!!!

  9. Lorene, Of course, bubble wrap. What a great idea! I can protect my tomatoes and take at least one item out of my cluttered basement.

  10. The good news (even though you may still crave a ‘Beefsteak’) is that all these amazing Siberian heirlooms have made their way into the market, finally, ones like ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Stupice.’ So if those in shorter- or cooler-season areas fail with the real heat-lovers, there is something else to turn to. I love the selection at Territorial Seed Company, for example.

  11. Margaret, You’re right. We’re so lucky to have all the Siberian varieties available to us both as seeds and young plants. I bought a ‘Stupice’ and several others to try.