Growing Tomatoes in Seattle with Success!July 31, 2008
Anyone who gardens in Seattle knows that tomatoes can be difficult to cultivate successfully. I’ve lived in the South East and the South West of the US, and in those long, hot summers there’s no stopping the bounty of ripening tomatoes all summer long. As I’ve come to understand that Seattle summers are late to start and sometimes quick to finish and always variable, I’ve experimented with tomatoes — sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
One of the first things I’ve learned is that putting out tomato plants early usually means the plants will fail or flounder at the very least. Since our temperatures fluxuate so much in late spring and early summer, tomatoes just aren’t happy in the ground until quite a bit later than many other places. Many think of mother’s day as a good “rule of thumb” marker for getting things into the garden. I like to go a bit later with tomato starts and aim for mid-June. Just to be clear, this is when I put good-sized start plants into the garden. It is not the time to start seeds in the ground.
Because I just can’t wait to get tomatoes in summer, I do like to cultivate my starts earlier than June. I’ve had great luck putting starts into the ground in my hoop house where the plastic covering keeps the plants protected and warm. When I’ve had access to a green house, I’ve kept my plants there, potting them up every few weeks until I take them outdoors to a protected location for a week or so before putting them into the ground. (I don’t want to move them straight from the warm, hot greenhouse to the ground. I put them outside for a bit on my protected, somewhat warm west-facing front porch to “harden them off”…aka get them ready to be in the garden dealing with nature.)
This year I put up a small, inexpensive plastic-covered green house on my back patio. It has allowed me to do quite a few things that I never have before. This includes harvesting a very large slicing tomato in mid-July!
In April I purchased one of the first 4″ Early Girl tomato starts I saw on the market. I immediately potted it up into a 1 gallon container and grew it in that for about a month. Then, in May, I potted it into a 5 gallon container into which I inserted a small tomato cage. By April, the tomato had begun blooming and it was warm enough that I kept my greenhouse door open most of the time (some nights I did zipper it shut if it was going to get cold). The pollenators began zooming into the greenhouse (along with slugs and other annoying pests), and by June I had several green tomatoes on my Early Girl (as well as a few other tomato plants I’d since added to the greenhouse.)
The other tomatoes I’d added include a favorite easy-ripener for Seattle called ‘Stupice’, a couple of determinate Romas called ‘Bellstar’, a patio whose name I don’t recall, another called ‘Fullness’, an insane indeterminate called ‘Moskovich’ and an odd-ball just for fun called ‘Black Krim’. I picked all but the patio up at the Tilth Edible Sale earlier this spring.
I moved the patio tomato onto the patio in June, and it is filled with miniature beefsteak shaped tomatoes that are starting to ripen as of the end of July. I moved one ‘Stupice’, ‘Fullness’ and a ‘Bellstar’ into my beds in mid-June, which it seems still shocked them a bit this year. They are flowering like mad, but it seems with my reduced pollenators this year that fruit-set is a little slow on all but the ‘Stupice’, which has some ripening fruit as of the end of July. The ‘Bellstar’ in the garden is mostly full of flowers and has yet to form fruit. Black Krim is starting to set fruit, but it isn’t doing much. The Moskovich was in the greenhouse doing nothing but putting on green growth, despite the reduced Nitrogen diet I provided. I moved it out of the greenhouse this weekend and staked it and cut it back hard. We’ll see what happens.
So, what’s next? Well, I’ll be bringing in tomatoes regularly from my patio and my stupice in the next few days. Early Girl looks to start ripening more fruit too soon. She is definitely a charm, and I will grow her again and again in years to come (in the greenhouse). You see, she gave me this enormous tomato two weeks ago — mid-July, which is, in my experience, rare in Seattle.
Oh, and one last note…my ‘Red Robin’ cherry that I grew indoors last winter continues to fruit and flower in the greenhouse. I cut it back hard and fed it bone meal, which seems to have really re-invigorated it. The plant is a year old now and has some tough woody stems. I hope to keep it going indoors again this winter…along with a few companions so I can harvest more than I did last winter.
And, just to get a little ahead of myself so you have this tip handy as your tomatoes fill up with lots of blooms and then green fruit that seems like it will never ripen here are some tips to force the fruit to ripen for you:
- Don’t use a lot of nitrogen fertilizer after the plants start setting fruit. The nitrogen will encourage more green growth and may reduce the fruiting and flowering. (That being said, they do need some nitrogen.)
- Cut out side shoots regularly, especially on indeterminates. This will encourage just a few shoots that will focus on flowering and fruiting.
- Cut out every other set of flowers, especially on indeterminates, after you pass summer solstice. Tomatoes will try to grow as though they can survive our winters. We need to help them curtail their enthusiasm if we want to harvest their fruit. Reducing blooms will help the plant focus on fewer blooms turning into more fruit for you.
- After fruit is set, start cutting back on water and by late August/early September start cutting back the tips of the plants (to a node) and cut out all the new flowers. It is unlikely (except on cherries) that flowers formed in August/September will ever give you fruit. They draw energy from the plant and discourage the existing fruit from ripening. By stressing the plant with reduced water and cutting at it, the plant will decide to try to protect the fruit it has formed already and focus on ripening that up for you!