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Pluckiest of the Bunch : With These Special Varieties, a Passion for Tomatoes Needn't Cool With the Weather


In December, as you prepare your holiday dinner, why not add something appropriately red by slipping outside and picking a vine-ripened tomato or two? Thanks to our mild Southern California winters, we can grow tomatoes while many other parts of the country are steeped in snow.

"Those gardeners who are adventuresome and imaginative can enjoy tomatoes in the middle of winter," said certified nurseryman Steve Kawaratani, general manager of Laguna Nursery in Laguna Beach. "You just need to grow the right cultivar and take good care of the plant." Tomato types that can be grown in the winter were developed for cool and foggy areas such as San Francisco and Seattle. Such tomato varieties have low heat and sunlight requirements.

"Tomatoes that do well in winter here tend to be small, fist-sized fruit, because smaller tomatoes need less heat and sunlight to produce," Kawaratani said. "These tomatoes also have a shorter maturity rate. Whereas the average tomato takes 70 to 80 days from seed to harvest, many winter growing tomatoes only need 50 to 60 days."

To get tomatoes for the holidays, you can plant new plants now or nurse along plants from summer, as long as they fit the requirements for cooler weather. You may even have luck planting from seed. Early Girl Improved, Champion and Celebrity are good choices.

Many nurseries still have a variety of tomato plants that do well in cooler weather, Kawaratani said. "You should be able to find Patio, Early Girl and Sweet 100 tomatoes."

Because the weather often doesn't start cooling off here until November, if you plant seeds now, you should have luck with a winter crop. When planting seeds, don't bury them too deep, said Linda Sapp, co-owner of Tomato Growers Supply Co. in Ft. Myers, Fla., a mail-order tomato seed company.

"Plant the tomato seeds less than a fourth of an inch deep, and keep the soil moist but not waterlogged," she said. "The optimum temperature for germinating is 70 to 75 degrees. So in the heat of August, you will probably want to germinate them indoors. Plant seed in mid-August, and you'll probably have plants large enough to go in the garden at the beginning of October. This would mean you could have ripe tomatoes somewhere around Christmas, in most cases."

Although you may have luck raising tomatoes from seed at this time of year, if you already have an indeterminate tomato plant thriving in a western or southern exposure, you may want to simply nurse the plant through winter.

Tomatoes are sometimes treated as annuals, but they are perennials. Keep your existing plants well watered, mulched and fed, and cut them back so they're more compact, and you will probably be rewarded with a winter crop.

It's important to realize that our winters are more unpredictable than our hot summers. "Despite your very best efforts, the weather is going to affect how successful you are," Kawaratani said. "If it is very cold and wet, you may not have much of a crop."

Excessive rain will cause problems for tomato plants, Sapp said. "Tomatoes can't cope with a lot of water," she said. "Water promotes foliar fungal diseases and causes fruit to split."

To put vine-ripened tomatoes on the table for the holidays, location is critical. "If you'll be planting them in the ground, make sure it is in a very protected, sunny site that has a western or southern exposure," Kawaratani said.

"The area shouldn't get a lot of wind. The trick is to put the tomato plants where [it] won't get any colder than 40 to 45 degrees at night, because tomatoes can't tolerate any lower than that."

In the winter, you'll have the best luck growing tomatoes in containers, Kawaratani said. "If a cold night is predicted, you can move the container inside for protection and then pull it back out in the sunlight the next day. I've even talked to customers who pull their tomato plants in the garage when there is a lot of rain."

When planting in containers, use a minimum of a 15-gallon can per plant, said Kawaratani, who notes that whiskey-barrel size is best.

The ultimate in protection for winter tomatoes is a greenhouse. "You can maintain a nice warm temperature and protect the plants from the outside elements with a greenhouse," Kawaratani said.

Robert Browning of Villa Park grows winter tomatoes in raised beds in a glass greenhouse. He grows Alaskan and Siberian types of tomatoes and always has a good crop during the winter.

"During the cool months, I harvest about five pounds of good-tasting tomatoes from six tomato plants growing in my greenhouse," he said.

Although staking and caging plants makes tomatoes easier to handle, especially when they are in containers, it's best not to do this, Kawaratani said. "The vascular system of the tomato is stressed when it is forced to grow vertically, and you don't want stressed plants in the winter. Tomatoes do much better when they are allowed to grow as they would naturally, in a sprawling manner."

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