Who doesn’t love homegrown tomatoes? I think most of us do, and I’d say they are my favorite thing to grow. Every time I buy a tomato from the grocery store I tell myself it wasn’t worth the bother or money and tell myself never do it again. But, there always comes a time I don’t have a garden, there’s red tomatoes at the store, and I cave in and buy them anyway. Even if they are organic and have a nice color, they’ll end up having no flavor. The first tomato I picked from the garden here, after my hiatus during our move, reminded me once again of the magnificent flavor of homegrown! It certainly is worth it to grow your own.
FIRST OUTDOOR TOMATOES: 2017
I knew from the start that growing tomatoes at this elevation would be a challenge and I may not be successful. I’d heard that it is possible to grow tomatoes here with special care and extra warmth at night, so I was ready with whatever I could do, short of building a greenhouse. Tomatoes were planted in a bed that would be covered every night with plastic. On the coldest nights, frost cloth would also be laid over the tomatoes as a blanket for added warmth. Dark colored plastic bottles filled with water and placed around the tomatoes could soak up warmth from the sun during the day, to be released at night inside the plastic dome.
2017 TOMATOES GROWN: Glacier (55), Coldset (65), Siletz (65): (#=Days to Maturity) All these are determinate tomatoes.
SELECTION & PLANTING: Tomato varieties were chosen based on cold-hardiness and early maturity days. All tomatoes planted were rated 55-65 days to maturity. (Our season, last frost to first frost, based on published information, is about 80 days.) Tomato seedlings were started indoors in soil blocks, first in mini-blocks, then transplanted to maxi-blocks. They had 6 weeks of growth prior to transplanting outdoors. In my experience, giving tomatoes more indoor growth did not produce a better plant, nor produce an earlier harvest, so I stuck with 6 weeks. Tomatoes were planted outdoors on June 15th.
HARVEST: The first tomato I was able to harvest was the Glacier, 79 days after transplant. Several more tomatoes of all varieties were harvested between this date and September 23, when all remaining tomatoes were harvested prior to a freeze. Many of these tomatoes were green to yellowish-green, and I was able to ripen them indoors. At that time, our greenhouse had just been built, so they were placed on racks in the greenhouse until ripe. They were a bit mealy and didn’t have as much flavor as the vine-ripened tomatoes, but I did what I had to do.
CONCLUSION: Tomatoes planted in the future will be grown in the greenhouse, even in the summer months. There, I will be able to start some earlier and others later, in succession, to keep a small supply on hand for several months. I won’t be planting large numbers of tomatoes for canning projects, but will only keep a few for eating fresh.
FIRST GREENHOUSE TOMATOES: 2017-18
Based on the previous year’s performance, tomatoes were grown exclusively in the greenhouse, and will be from now on. The greenhouse was completed mid-September 2017 and tomatoes were transplanted to greenhouse beds the end of September.
2017-18 TOMATOES GROWN: Early Salad (45), Oregon Spring (58), Coldset (65), Principe Borghese (75), Sioux (70) All are determinate except the Sioux, which is indeterminate. Principe Borghese is sometimes considered semi-determinate or “vigorous determinate.”
SELECTION & PLANTING: I wasn’t so concerned about “days to maturity” since I knew there would be warmth in the greenhouse indefinitely. I chose tomatoes that I had seeds on hand, some of which I had was impressed with when I grew them in Wellington. The Principe Borghese produced a large amount of small paste type tomatoes, which were great in salads or dried. I wanted to make a go of these again. The Sioux was an indeterminate tomato that I wanted to try climbing up the post in the center of the greenhouse and along the beams. The Early Salad promised to be a small, “salad-type” tomato, on a compact plant that promised to grow well in a hanging basket.
HARVEST: Two of these plants were removed, because they had grown too large and were not producing tomatoes. I didn’t want them taking up precious space nor crowding out other plants. These were the Principe Borghese and Coldset. The Oregon Spring and Sioux both did well, but I was surprised at how long it took for tomatoes to grow and ripen. The first harvest for the Oregon Spring (58) was January 15, 108 days after transplant. The Sioux (70) was harvested 124 days after transplant. The Early Salad (45) tomatoes, planted in two hanging baskets, did very well. They were first harvested sometime in November (+/- 60 days?) and I continued to enjoy them for several months. They did not get as big as I’d expected, they were more of a cherry tomato size, but were great to have on hand.
CONCLUSION: I was quite surprised that it took so long for the tomatoes to ripen, but I assume it was because during the winter months they did not have as much light per day as they would in summer months, when tomatoes would normally be grown. The Sioux had been planted near the center post, and two main stems were trained up along the beams. It produced nice tomatoes, and just one or two at a time were harvested for fresh eating. I will do these types of tomatoes again, and for other determinate tomatoes to be planted in the greenhouse beds I will look for those that are considered “compact”, due to my limited space. I did not pay close attention to fertilization. I would add fertilizers when planting, but during the growth period I did not have a set schedule or plan and only occasionally added some fertilizer when I thought it might be a good idea. (Bad gardener!!)
NOTE: Late summer of 2018 I suffered an injury which kept me out of the garden and greenhouse for fall harvesting. Although Tim did a great job of watering & harvesting, I did not keep the notes up as well as I normally do, and did not have eyes on the tomato plants as they developed at this stage.
OTHER GREENHOUSE TOMATO NOTES
Since the first experience with greenhouse tomatoes, I have tried a few different varieties, with varying results. The next couple of years I often found that many of the tomatoes had blossom end rot (BER), and began supplementing the soil heavily with egg shells and bone meal to provide calcium. They improved, but not a lot. This past summer (2019) many of the tomatoes I’d planted did not do all that well, between scrawny plants and the BER. Since the greenhouse soil does not get much rest between plantings, I began to focus on improving the soil as much as I can, and doing a better job of fertilization, not only when tomatoes are first planted, but throughout the growing season.
Prior to planting, soil is now improved by adding 1-2” of compost to the top and mixed in with the soil. Also added: Espoma Bio-Tone, Espoma Tomato-Tone, bone meal, egg shells, and vermicompost. Tomatoes are always started in mini-blocks, sometimes transplanted to maxi-blocks and sometimes transplanted directly to the greenhouse bed, depending on space availability in the beds. Tomatoes that are to be transplanted to the hanging baskets are given time to grow in the maxi-blocks prior to transplant—once I did not do this and the tomato did not grow as well in the basket.
Tomatoes in the greenhouse always take longer to mature and ripen than the seed packet suggests, even during summer months. I am not sure why. I have had difficulty finding information about growing tomatoes in a greenhouse on a small scale such as this. I assume it may be due to my lack of a good fertilization schedule, and perhaps the lower light conditions. The glazing on the greenhouse allows something like 80% of light to come through. We do not add additional light during the winter months, and in the winter I assume that the slow growth is to be expected because of this.
I typically prune off the lower limbs of the determinate tomatoes after it has had some growth to keep them off the ground and give the plant more air. After a good amount of tomatoes have grown, or are growing, I often prune off the top growth to put more energy into the tomatoes that are there. All “suckers” are pruned from indeterminate tomatoes to allow one or two main stems to grow up the post and across the beams. This also puts more energy into a few tomatoes rather than over-producing.
NOVEMBER 2019: The tomatoes currently growing in the greenhouse (planted August & September) are doing VERY WELL and some are just beginning to turn orange. It’s now 100 days from transplant for a tomato that’s advertised 60 days to maturity. Hmmm. But, the plants are healthy and the growing tomatoes are larger than most have been in the greenhouse thus far. I have kept up a consistent fertilization schedule, adding Espoma Tomato-Tone every two weeks as suggested on the package, along with a little bone meal for extra calcium. These tomatoes show NO indication of blossom end rot.
Below is a list of the tomato varieties I have grown in the greenhouse with their (days to maturity), the reason I chose them, and my results with days to harvest after transplant (DTH) when available. Generally, the seeds I choose are organic, and I am not opposed to growing hybrids, that often produce a more consistent tomato.
COMPACT, GROWN IN HANGING BASKETS
Beaverlodge 6806 Plum (55) – A compact plant, “perfect in a hanging basket”.
Result: It did not do as well as the Beaverlodge I’d planted in the beds, and produced fewer tomatoes than the plant in the bed. I probably will not attempt this in a basket again.
Early Salad (45) – An early “salad” tomato, a little larger than a cherry tomato, on a compact, 6=8” plant good for containers.
Result: It was larger than this, growing up in its basket and trailing up to 2 feet. Produced a large amount of tomatoes the first year and produced for several months. (DTH: 60)
Red Robin (55) – 1 to 1 1/2 inch fruit by the fistful. Compact plant 8-12″ tall good for containers.
Result: To be planted Fall 2019.
DETERMINATE – GROWN IN GREENHOUSE BEDS
Beaverlodge 6806 Plum (55) – A compact plant, not tall, loaded with small size (2 1/2”) tomatoes.
Result: The plants grown in the greenhouse beds were quite prolific, and as the description suggested, “the plants were so loaded with tomatoes that there seemed to be more fruit than leaves!” Due to my lack of care and fertilization (see above) the plants were somewhat scraggly and some tomatoes had BER. I will do these again with a better fertilization schedule, because there were so many tomatoes on a small plant, they were great in salads and easy to peel when desired.
Bellstar (74) – I had previously grown these in Wellington, and recalled that they produced a good number of nice tomatoes.
Result: These did not do so well in the greenhouse, and did not produce many tomatoes.
Coldset (65) – I had these seeds on hand and decided to try them in the greenhouse.
Result: The plant was too large and did not produce many blossoms before I ripped it out.
Early Red Chief (65-70) – These were to be stout, bushy plants with large beefsteak tomatoes.
Result: These took a long time to produce on plants that were too large for my preference in the greenhouse. I probably will not do them again.
Oregon Spring (60-75) – This typically produces early yields and is cold-hardy.
Result: This has been one of my favorites in the greenhouse. The plant does not grow overly large, and it produces a good number of round, red tomatoes. The current Oregon Spring is just about ready for me to harvest the first tomatoes, which should be about 105 days after transplant. (DTH: 105-120)
Principe Borghese (75) – One of my favorites in my previous garden at lower altitude. Prolific producer of small paste tomatoes.
Result: The plant was too large for my space and did not produce many blossoms before I ripped it out.
Rio Grande (80) – One of my favorites in my previous garden at lower altitude. Produced large paste tomatoes good for canning and easy to peel.
Result: The tomatoes took a very long time to produce and ripen. I think they would do better outdoors in a warmer location.
Siletz (65) – I had these on hand after growing them outdoors, and promised to produce well in cooler weather.
Result: The first year I did not stake or cage these and let them sprawl. I will not do that again. These did well in the greenhouse, and continued to produce a second harvest after the first. I had pruned off several top limbs and blossoms to ripen the first several tomatoes, then stopped pruning when new suckers grew to produce the second harvest. (DTH: 94)
Silvery Fir Tree (55) – This dwarf heirloom is noted to grow well in containers and small gardens.
Result: This had a tendency to grow low to the ground, and after the first experiment of not staking it, I grew another with a tomato cage around it. The caged plant did much better, and was also pruned at the bottom to keep it off the ground. I would do this again. (DTH: 74)
Tasti-Lee F1 (75) – This was listed as a good greenhouse tomato.
Result: This was grown the year of my injury, and I did not keep it well pruned nor pay much attention to it. It did produce nice tomatoes, but I felt it was too tall for the location. If I give this another chance in the future I will place it in a less crowded spot.
INDETERMINATE – TRAINED UP POST AND ALONG BEAMS
Applegate (75) – Listed as a greenhouse variety to produce 2” salad tomatoes.
Result: This did nicely throughout the fall & winter, but the first tomato came 163 days after transplant! The first was transplanted to the greenhouse 8/11 and harvested 1/20, in the dead of winter. There is currently another Applegate growing, which was transplanted 8/9/19. It looks like the tomatoes may ripen by 12/1 or so, which will be 113 days. I will try to update when this happens. (DTH: 160)
Cobra (72) – This is a “preferred variety for the greenhouse” to produce crack-resistant tomatoes.
Result: These will be planted Winter 2020.
Sioux (70) – I had previously grown these outdoors at lower elevation, and since I had the seeds on hand I tried them here.
Result: The first tomatoes were harvested in 120 days. It continued to produce a few at a time and the plant was removed 9 months after transplant to the greenhouse bed. (DTH: 120)
TOMATOES GROWN OUTDOORS
Glacier (55) – Chosen for short season and cold-hardiness.
Result: These were supposed to be red, but 2 of the plants produced yellow tomatoes. They were fine, just not expected. The tomatoes were good, but the season wasn’t long enough (see above).
Coldset (65) – Chosen for short season and cold-hardiness.
Result: The tomatoes were good, but the season wasn’t long enough (see above).
Siletz (65) – Chosen for short season and cold-hardiness.
Result: The tomatoes were good, but the season wasn’t long enough (see above).