Drought-to-deluge conditions followed by warm summer nights mean that tomato season has arrived early in Southern California.
Ojai-based tomato expert Scott Daigre, who is growing about 150 tomato plants in the ground and 70 in containers, estimates the current tomato harvest is about three weeks premature.
“Everything is blooming early this year,” he said. “In a crop season that is a lot. It’s incredibly early. Judging by the comments I am getting we are easily three weeks ahead of time.”
What does that mean for those who like to plant winter tomatoes? What are they going to do in August and September if the plants tire early? In a recent phone interview, Daigre offered tips on growing short-season tomatoes.
Why is this happening?
It’s a combination of things: People are planting earlier. Nice temps in May and warmer nights than in previous years. Then there is the water. I think we have more active soil from the rain. I think starved soil really responds to a good winter.
When should tomato plants be planted for winter this year?
The next two weeks. The peak will go until Aug. 1. If you can get things in the next few weeks, the plants will be coming on as the other plants are expiring. Far too often people think those winter tomatoes are ones you buy and plant in October. In truth those need to go in now (and even now might be a little bit late for some), especially in a year when everyone is harvesting so quickly.
What about fertilizer?
We rely on Doctor Earth. We have been loving liquid fertilizers this year. Hook a spray bottle up to a hose and go. In Southern California, it’s nice to use a foliar feeding [feeding plants by applying liquid fertilizer directly to their leaves]. Containers need fertilizing more often. There is actually a Jobe’s organic spike that I love for pots. It’s timed-release.
What kinds of seedlings are good for winter?
Look for small or mid-sized short season tomatoes: Early Girl, Champion, Carmello, Taxi, Jaune Flamme, Stupice heirloom. Nurseries won’t be offering the beefsteaks. Tomatoes should be smaller than a baseball — cherry tomatoes, Sun Golds, Sweet 100s.
It’s not a bad idea to ease the new plant into high heat. If you’re planting a new baby it’s a good idea to protect it and shade it until it has grown a bit. If you can guard it for a week or so, even better. Plant at the base of what you are currently growing, not in full sun, at the end of the row. As another plant tires, the new one will have space. I like to do succession planting — planting in three different intervals — which will extend fruit through November.