Are heirloom tomatoes big or small? Are they red or orange or yellow? Are they wrinkly? Are they meaty? What do they taste like?
What the heck does heirloom mean?
Of course, heirloom has nothing to do with size or color or rugosity or taste. It has most to do with age. The most common definition of an heirloom variety of any crop is one that is old — usually people say at least fifty years old, old enough to have been passed down for a couple of generations, like a piece of heirloom furniture.
Then another key part of the common definition is that the crop is open-pollinated. This means that if you grew the seed from it you would get a plant that produced the same fruit. So, if I had an heirloom tomato that looked striped and was huge, and I sowed seeds from it, the plants that grew would give me fruit that were similarly striped and huge.
That doesn’t happen with hybrids. Sow a seed from a hybrid tomato and you get a plant that makes fruit that are at least a little different from the original hybrid tomato. (In fact, I did this with the Champion hybrid tomato cultivar this summer, and the fruit from that plant is acceptable, but different from its parent.)
An heirloom tomato, then: at least fifty years old, and open-pollinated.
Which of the tomatoes pictured above is an heirloom? There’s no way you could know unless I told you. How could you know how old the variety is? How could you know whether it came from an open-pollinated or hybrid seed? You never could, so I’ll tell you.
It’s not the one on the right, the red one. That is a variety called San Diego, also known as San Diego Hybrid, originally known as 7718. Normally, this variety is not quite so big nor as corrugated. This specimen is unusual. I like this variety’s meaty insides and high yields. I grow it every year. But it’s a hybrid, so I don’t save any seed. I grow it from seedlings I buy at the nursery.
The heirloom tomato is the one on the left, the small orange one. Called Jaune Flamme, it came to our country from France. It may not look like much, but the fruits are so juicy and sweet, and I love their vibrant persimmon color, which I add to salsas for effect. If you know the hybrid cherry tomato called Sungold, then you can think of Jaune Flamme as big Sungolds.
I will save the seed of some Flamme and grow them again next year. As an heirloom, it’s open-pollinated, so I can do that. It should grow “true”, as they say.
A couple years ago I planted a Sungold cherry tomato that grew into a jungle: ten feet wide, taller than me, I wanted a machete to hack into the middle to grasp those golden fruits. I supported the plant in no manner.
That’s an option for tomato growers, no support. But most of us give some kind of props. When I lived in Lesotho, I was charmed to find that many people used branches pruned off their peach trees to stick into the ground and let their tomatoes crawl over. This kept most of the fruit off the dirt and made picking involve less bending.
Those are two of the main goals of supporting the sprawling vines of the tomato plant: unblemished fruit and easy harvesting. My giant old Sungold plant gave me neither gift — because I hadn’t given it the gift of something to lean on.
These days, I set five-foot tall cages around all of my cherry tomato plants, two-and-a-half-foot tall cages around many of my other tomato plants, and occasionally stake or refrain from supporting a tomato plant at all.
Those are what I see as the four common methods. Each has a place, and each has advantages and disadvantages.
Other methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I doubt I’ll ever bother with again include tying to a chain link fence (too much effort), cages built with stakes and string (too much effort and a pain to take down), those little inverted wire pyramid tunnels that are sold as tomato cages (a pain to stick in the ground, can only handle small tomato varieties that would do fine without any support), and twisting up a string that hangs from an eave of the roof (see photo below: looks cool but takes a lot of twisting and pruning work).
One of the four common methods (no support, staked, short cage, tall cage) is usually best for a given situation. It depends on a number of factors, the principle ones being the growth habit of the tomato variety, the money you want to invest in materials, the time you have to tend to the plants, the space you have for storing cages or stakes, whether you’re going for maximum yield, and how much land you’re devoting to the plant.
Below are photos of different varieties of tomatoes in my yard today, May 26, being supported in the four different ways. I note why I chose each method according to the context.
‘Early Girl’ variety: No support
This plant is growing in a somewhat remote corner where I am unlikely to tend it well but it can sprawl as widely as its heart desires. I also didn’t stake or cage it because I don’t want the plant reaching tall since I want the avocado tree next to it to get maximum sun.
‘Champion’ seedling: Staked
This plant is growing in a location where I can’t let it get wide or it will block a walking path, so I’ll be tying it up this six-foot tall stake and pruning the lateral branches a bit. Tying and pruning will take some time, but it’s only a single plant. It’s a volunteer from a Champion plant that grew here last year. Champion is a hybrid, so I’m unsure of how good the fruit on this plant will be; therefore, I’m not concerned about getting the most fruit possible. (Those tomatoes in the photo at the top are the Champions from last year.)
‘San Diego’ variety: Short cage
This variety of tomato has reached about four feet tall in my yard in past years, so the short cage should be sufficient. Vines will eventually reach the top and cascade down a bit.
‘Sweet 100’ variety: Tall cage
Cherry tomatoes have the smallest fruit but the largest canopy of foliage. By the end of June, this plant will already be spilling over the cage’s rim. If I had a ten-foot tall cage it probably wouldn’t be tall enough, but then I’d need a ladder to pick the tomatoes. Other tomato varieties, like ‘San Marzano’, grow large canopies as well. See a photo of a ‘San Marzano’ plant in one of these five-foot tall cages a few Julys back in my post titled “San Diego tomatoes, and supporting tomatoes.”
I’ll post an update in July showing all of the tomato plants pictured above so we can see how each one has cooperated with its method of training and support.
A note on my cages: I made them from concrete reinforcement wire (steel remesh) that I bought at Lowes. I got the idea from Don Shor of the Davis Garden Show (here’s a post I wrote about the excellent Davis Garden Show.) Similar cages can be bought, including square or triangular shapes that fold for easy storage, but they’re more expensive than homemade. As regards cost, do remember that these cages are versatile and can be used to support pole beans, cucumbers, peas, etc. I’ve found them a worthwhile investment.
This is a short YouTube video I made showing how I make my tomato cages.
Here’s a sketch of a chart ranking each of the four methods according to their advantage in the categories you might care about (click to enlarge); this might help you make a decision about how to support your tomato plants, or it can give you thoughts for next year: if you planted in March and haven’t supported them yet, your plants are probably already jungles. In that case, happy hunting for the fruit!
Please let me know if you have had different experiences with the methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I mentioned above, or if you have a totally different favorite method; maybe there’s something I haven’t tried that will be the ultimate. Also let me know if you’d like more information about any of the methods I mentioned.
Transplanting vegetable seedlings is such a simple act, and yet there are better and worse ways to do it. There’s even an artfulness and fluidity to the process. Here are photos with captions describing the five motions that I go through.
It’s about getting the plant into a new piece of ground in the least stressful way, and it’s also about being efficient. This is the best method I know of, after having tried variations and additional steps. Below the photo sequence are details about and reasons for each step.
1. Pinch bottom of container with one hand while tugging gently on stem of plant with other hand
2. Tease roots straight if they are circling around the sides and bottom
3. Insert trowel with tip angled toward you, then pull dirt up and out in order to create an opening; immediately place seedling into opening and then remove trowel
4. Slide dirt around sides to fill opening
5. Water around seedling
Step 1. Removing plant from container: Pictured is a small eggplant seedling in a six pack. If dealing with a larger plant, in a four- or six-inch container, I make a Star Trek sign with my left hand and put the V around the plant’s stem, then I turn the container upside down. A squeeze with my right hand is sometimes necessary to get the root ball to slide out.
Step 2. Teasing roots straight: Why tease the roots straight? Roots can’t move within the dirt. However you place them is how they’ll remain for life. Elongating them gives them a larger and deeper zone of soil to draw water and nutrients from right off the bat. I have to admit though that I’ve never compared the growth of seedlings whose roots are left circled and seedlings whose roots I’ve teased straight — nor have I seen such a study — so I don’t know for certain that this step is effective.
Step 3. Putting seedling into dirt: No biggie if you don’t own a trowel. Dig with a butter knife, or a stick, or just your fingers. My earliest memory of gardening is of my mother using a butter knife to do almost everything in her garden. I used a stick to do all vegetable transplanting in my gardens for a decade until my mother-in-law recently gave me a trowel for a Christmas present. I like it a lot, but it’s not required. Also, note that I call it an “opening” and not a hole. What’s the difference? Nothing, except that I want to imply that it doesn’t need to be big or deep and take a long time to make.
Step 4. Filling opening: Now’s the time to make sure the plant is upright and at the same level in the soil as it was in the container. Tug up on the stem or press down beside the stem as needed for adjustment. You may hear that tomatoes should be planted deeper. You can and they root along the stem, but I don’t bother. I’ve planted them deeper and planted them level and never noticed any difference in growth. On the other hand, seedlings of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale can get long-stemmed and top heavy, and I usually plant them deeper in order to help them stand more erect.
Step 5. Watering: Watering around the seedling is usually sufficient to establish good contact between the roots and soil, so no need to tamp around the seedling. Plants with big leaves might topple over when you water them. I make the Star Trek sign with one hand, palm up, and support the stem in the V as I water those plants in. (Until writing this, I never realized how often I make the Star Trek sign while transplanting. What does it mean?)
That’s the process. But what about adding fertilizer? I do know some very experienced gardeners who add fertilizer to the hole when they transplant, and that works for them; however, that’s not my style. I only add compost to the surface of the soil in my vegetable beds. (I wrote a post about this: Fertile soil can be child’s play.)
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you start transplanting. First, it’s ideal if the soil in the seedling’s container is not dry. You want the plant to be full of water and not stressed before going through a transplanting. Also, the soil to be planted into should be moist — but not wet or dry. If it’s wet or dry it will be difficult to dig in.
Lastly, there is a best time of day to do transplanting: the cool of the late afternoon or evening. This gives the plant roots a whole night to establish a relationship with their new soil surroundings before needing to perform and support the leaves as they must do during bright sunlight. That being said, in winter or when it’s cloudy, time of day is not a concern.
And I said it’s such a simple act. Well, so is eating and sleeping and running and singing and . . .
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Yesterday, I opened the door and my two sons, ages 1 and 3, ran straight for the blueberries. After they’d worked those plants, they dropped down to the strawberries, and then the garbanzo beans, and then the broccoli, and then the peas, and then the carrots. “What else can I eat?” asked my three-year-old.
A major reason I grow a vegetable garden is my kids. I want it to be their grocery store. I have only one rule, which is that they eat whatever they pick. They end up picking green blueberries, white strawberries, and peas that aren’t yet plump, but that’s their business. As long as they eat it, who am I to tell them when it tastes best?
I also want the vegetable garden to be their playground, so I let them get away with a lot. I let them prune even though they sometimes cut flowering raspberry canes. I let them water even though they occasionally water weeds. I let them dig even though they often dig up seedlings. I have no fence around the vegetable beds, so they are free to stomp through them at will, and they sometimes stomp and kill baby plants.
But I also see the vegetable garden as their classroom. Slowly but surely, I’m teaching them which plants to water and why and how; sprinkle like rain, don’t pour and make a river, I say. The older one knows where the paths are and where the beds are now, and he helps direct the one-year-old. “Don’t step on the baby plants, baby boy,” I’ve heard him say.
And then there are lessons from nature, like the metamorphoses of insects. The boys know that ladybugs are friendly to our garden, and they also can identify ladybug larvae, which they often point out to me. I didn’t know ladybug larvae until a few years ago!
They understand why a gopher is a garden enemy — it eats our food, we say. And unfortunately, we have to trap one when we can, and we feed it to the cat. The food chain. They get it.
Speaking of pests, I told my father-in-law the other day that I see my boys as garden pests that I need to compensate for by planting extra because I know they’re going to cause a certain amount of damage. But they’re unique pests in that, unlike the gopher, if you involve them in the workings of the garden they eventually are able to help take care of it and even make it flourish in ways you hadn’t imagined.
My great uncle gave me some sunflower seeds a few months back. I told my three-year-old that the seeds were his to plant. I gave him no other directions or assistance. He scratched and buried them here and there, partially in a bed and partially in a path, some seemingly too deep and others too shallow. I figured they were unlikely to grow because he wouldn’t keep up with watering so it didn’t matter, but we had quite the consistent rains this winter and they took off. I had already planned to put peas in that bed and I went ahead with that plan despite the growing sunflowers. Now in May, we’re eating the peas as they climb the sunflower stalks, the finches stop by each morning to eat the sunflower leaves, but there’s still enough foliage to give the peas respite from the afternoon sun, and the sunflowers are taller than me and about to open bloom.
I would never have thought to grow peas under sunflowers. It’s only something that happened because of the spark of life that is kids in a garden.
It’s nearly spring, the time of year when many people think of planting a vegetable garden. If this will be your first one, or if you’ve moved into a new house, or if your past vegetable gardens struggled, here are what I consider the two most important factors related to where to plant.
In the sun
The top concern is, by far, sunlight. The more, the better.
Vegetable plants are photosynthesizing machines. Photo means sunlight. Plants literally eat sunlight. Without enough of it, they’re slow, they’re weak, they’re starving, and they can’t produce leaves or fruit for you.
I once lived in a house near Balboa Park in San Diego, nestled in a canyon that was filled with eucalyptus and ficus trees. It was the most pleasant environment; the tree canopy moderated even the hottest days of summer. For my vegetables though, it was torture. They were constantly munched by bugs as they stretched toward the dappled light. During one summer, I got so desperate to give my plants what they wanted that I lugged multiple pots onto my roof and grew a garden up there.
I now live just outside San Diego in Ramona, a place nicknamed “Valley of the Sun”, where commercial solar farms find it profitable to operate. My vegetables grow like lightning. And I feel like a pro. Well, not quite a pro, but I do feel much better about my gardening skills even as I know it has more to do with the sunny location as with anything else.
If a location gets full, direct, 100% sun for half of each day, that’s sufficient. That’s about six hours of full sun that vegetables need at a minimum. Anything less is going to engender less than great results.
Remember, too, that the sun’s angle changes throughout the year such that a spot in full sun in summer might be in full shade in winter because of a building or tree or wall to its south. If you want to grow vegetables like cabbage or garlic that need to grow through the winter in Southern California, then keep this in mind.
What might it take for you to find this half day’s sun in your yard? It might take removing a section of your lawn, as my mom recently did in order to locate her vegetables in more sun. The vegetables are showing their appreciation. Ask yourself if you really need every square foot of your lawn, and be encouraged by knowing that a vegetable garden requires less water than a lawn.
To locate your vegetable garden in the most sun it might also take an adjustment of your sensibilities. You might need to place your vegetable garden in the front yard instead of the back. My current vegetable garden is in my front yard (as seen in the photo above). I planted it there because that’s where the sun is. At first, it felt strange to grow my vegetables in the front yard, but I’ve found that my neighbors particularly enjoy it. As they walk by with their dogs they ask what I’m growing these days, and I have opportunities to share with them whatever is harvestable at the moment.
In your face
The other most important factor in locating a successful vegetable garden is planting it where you’ll run into it, every day, unintentionally. It ought to be in your face, in a place where you look and walk often already as part of your daily routines, not in a remote corner of the yard that is out of sight and that you’ll have to remember to visit.
Even though my vegetable garden is in my front yard and mostly in my face, I continue to find that the beds closest to our front door and in view of our living room window look the best. They have very few weeds, they are always fully planted, and they are always well-watered. Then there are the beds down by the road. They have more weeds, are spottier in their plantings, and if I sow seeds down there I sometimes forget to keep them moist until germination.
Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the way we humans operate.
A vegetable garden that is in your face also gets harvested more often, key for something like peas which go from slim to plump and pickable in a single day. Yesterday, we ate our daily dose on the porch.
For you and your vegetable garden, a place in your face might mean planting right outside a window that you sit by as you work in your home office or a window that you look out as you wash dishes after every meal. Or it might mean that the vegetable garden is right outside your back door because that’s the door you use every day to access your car to get to and from work. The idea is that you bring your vegetable garden into the path of your routines, if at all possible.
Sure, there are other things to think about when it comes to locating a vegetable garden, such as proximity to a water faucet or being protected from your pet dog. But those other qualities can be altered. You can lay pipe and install a water source, and you can erect a fence to keep your dog out of the garden. The sunlight a location receives, however, is nearly impossible to change. And your routines are your routines — what’s harder to change than those?
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I love hummus, so when I saw a garbanzo bean plant at the nursery last April I bought it. Rookie mistake. Just because you see a plant at the nursery doesn’t mean that now is a good time to buy and plant it.
Different vegetable plants prefer to grow in different seasons, of course. And contrary to the beliefs of people who don’t live here, we do have seasons in Southern California. Sow cauliflower in May and see how well it does.
But it had been a fine spring day, and I had been infected with the fever of that warming season. (Here in March it is that warming season again — beware!) Forgetting to consider when garbanzo bean plants like to grow in Southern California, I bought it and put it in the ground among my other vegetables. Soon it formed bean pods. Excited, I squeezed a pod, but it dented. It was empty. All of the other pods were hollow too. Then in the heat of summer, the plant started to brown and eventually, it died. I forgot about it.
Then a couple months ago I heard someone mention that farmers in California’s Central Valley grow garbanzo beans as a winter crop. Duh, Greg. Beans are not beans. Some grow in summer, like black beans or pinto or green beans, but some grow in winter here, like fava beans. I should have done my homework. Once I did, I learned that actually some other farmers do grow garbanzos in the summer, but this is in places like Morro Bay, where summers are cool and foggy — in other words, where summers are like our winters.
Oh well. Lesson learned, again.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for making this timing mistake, right? I forgive myself for forgetting that lesson primarily because of the way grocery stores are stocked. Judging by the appearance of grocery store shelves, there are no seasons. How should I know when garbanzo beans are grown in my area? I only see them in cans, 365 days a year. And how should I know when cauliflower is grown in my area? It’s fresh on the shelves 365 days a year.
Grocery store shelves may carry all fruits and vegetables all of the time, but your garden won’t. Unless it’s warm like summer, tomatoes won’t ripen. Unless it’s cool like winter, broccoli will shoot for the sky and become a yellow mass of flowers that is candy for the bees before you can say, Wait, please!
We usually eat the immature broccoli flowers, but bees are grateful when we let some grow up.
Wait . . . sometime in January, I noticed little plants popping up that weren’t my usual weeds. As they grew, I began to recognize their leaves as those of garbanzo plants. How did that happen? All of the pods had been hollow. The plant had died. Who knows? Nature has forgiven me, too.
That photo at the very top shows foliage of one of the garbanzo bean plants now, pretty happy among spinach and winter grass weeds, growing in their season of cool. If the pods are not hollow this time, I have a dream: I’m going to use the beans to make hummus mixed with avocado and spread it on sourdough toast.
. . .
From now on, let’s grow our vegetables at the right time the first time. When to plant what? Consult these resources:
The best online resource I know of is Vince Lazaneo’s Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. (You may want to see my note here about determining whether you live in the “coastal” or “inland” zone.)
The best offline resource I know of is Sunset’s Western Garden Book.
You might also like to have a look at my “Month by Month” posts where I list vegetables to sow and plant each month in Southern California.
My dream of making hummus has been dashed by my sons, who discovered how good garbanzos taste fresh off the plant. At least the pods weren’t hollow.