City Seedling: Tomato Poetry

Tomato Plants MayIf summer has a taste, it’s a wedge of tomato, still warm from the sun, with a little sprinkle of salt. Pablo Neruda calls this mingling of flavors a “wedding” in his poem “Ode to Tomatoes.”

If you want that glorious, tomato-y moment come August, you’ve got to get moving now. It’s late to start tomatoes from seed, but if you pick up some plants at the local garden center, next couple of weekends are prime tomato planting season.

I haven’t been planting tomatoes in my plot for the last couple of years, as we’ve had a problem with tomato theft. But this year, with a new loss prevention system (read: a fence) in place, I’m ready to try again.

If you’re hoping to coax fruit from a pot on your stoop, give some thought to cherry or grape tomatoes rather than the big boys. You’ll get fruit sooner in the season, and there’s less riding on an individual tomato. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the fury I’ve felt when one tomato I was waiting for was ruined or stolen at the last minute. (Once, a squirrel took a single bite out of my very first ripe tomato, and then threw it on the ground. Didn’t even finish it! I contemplated getting a bb gun…)

When shopping for a container tomato plant, look on the label for plants that are described as “determinate” rather than “indeterminate.” The determinate plants have a set size they will grow to, while indeterminate ones will keep growing larger and larger — great if they’re in the ground with lots of room, but not if you’re working with an 18 inch pot on a 6 foot wide stair case. Keep in mind that determinate plants have a more fixed fruiting season, whereas indeterminate will keep producing fruit and growing until the frost.

It’s always good to hedge your bets a bit when growing tomatoes, especially in the city. If you have space for more than one plant, I always like experimenting with different varieties and sizes. I got burned one year when I planted only a yellow variety that was prolific but mealy and totally gross.

Tomato Plants JuneRead a little about the flavors described on the label, and try for a range of acidity. Usually the flavor will be described in levels of acid, with lower acid fruits being the sweeter ones. We tend to think of tomatoes as tasting like tomatoes, but the variety in flavors is pretty incredible. I spent some time in Italy last summer, and visited a market which featured a man known as The Tomato Poet. He had over 50 types of tomato, and I had a chance to sample a handful of different ones. Some were savory and almost meaty tasting, while others were like candy.

This year, I planted three types: San Marzano, which are great for sauce; medium sized Purple Cherokee, which are flavorful and beautiful; and Mr. Stripey, a large heirloom with a cute name, and pretty yellow and pink coloring. The San Marzano are an attempt to recapture my weeks in Italy last summer, even though these tomatoes are famously impossible to replicate without the peninsula’s volcanic soil.

If you’re looking for a place to buy your tomatoes, I always pick mine up at Dreyer Farms in Cranford. They’re about a 20 minute drive, but definitely worth it. They have wide selections of heirloom and unusual varieties, though you can get your Big Boy and Better Boy tomatoes here too. They also have an astounding selection of herbs – they have something like 9 or 10 varieties of thyme (And who couldn’t use a little more thyme, amiright? Hey-oh!)

If it’s your first time growing tomatoes, here is a quick and dirty guide to getting the most out of your plants.

Tomato Plants1) You know that real estate maxim, location, location, location? It applies to plants, too. Tomatoes need full sun, which usually means a southern exposure. I have squeaked by with tomatoes in a northern exposure before, but you won’t get many. A lack of light is another reason to choose cherry tomato varieties.

2) If planting in the ground, choose a spot with well drained, fertile soil, and give the plants about 12 – 18 inches of breathing room. Planting in a container? Use your favorite potting mix in a 12 – 18 inch (diameter) pot. You can get creative here — those plastic bins that certain types of kitty litter come in work great with a few holes drilled in the bottom.

3) When planting tomatoes, make sure to dig a deep hole, and bury them up to their necks — and by that, I mean up to the top set of leaves. It seems counter intuitive — won’t taller plants mean more tomatoes? — but putting the extra stem in the soil allows the plant to grow a stronger and more extensive root system.

4) Tomatoes are technically a vine, so they will need some kind of stake to help them stand tall. (Ripening fruit sitting on the ground invites bugs and smushed tomatoes.) You can use something as simple as a length of 1 x 2” lumber, or any number of stakes, loops, or cages available from the garden center. It’s a matter of preference. Whatever you do, do it early in the growing season, as it’s next to impossible to wrestle a 3 foot long vine into a cage.

5) Tomatoes need fertile soil, but I’m not a big one for regular application of fertilizer. With tomatoes, and any fruiting plant, applying fertilizer at the wrong times can result in plants that have a bunch of leaves but no flowers (which are necessary for fruit). It always just seemed too complicated for me.  I’m not crazy about Miracle Grow because of their corporate practices, but it does work well as potting soil, and if it’s your first time growing something, you can make it easy on yourself and just use that. It will have enough nutrients for the whole season.

Tomato Plants June AugustBasically, tomatoes need sun and water. Outside plants (as opposed to house plants) are pretty forgiving. As long as you keep an eye out and make sure they aren’t getting too dry (if you stick your finger in the soil, it should feel damp) or getting drowned (the leaves will curl or turn yellow) you should be fine. Depending on container size, they may need water every day at the height of summer.

6) Don’t forget the basil!

Happy growing!

Have fool-proof tomato trick? Tell us in the comments!

Photos by Emily Helck


Emily Helck

a lifelong New Jersey resident who moved to Jersey City in 2006. She earned an MA in English and writing from Fordham University. In addition to blogging about gardening in the city, her personal blog RTONJ is about being a young adult with cancer. She lives downtown with a dog, two cats, and her husband.