There is one wonderfully delicious result of this month’s relentless heat… tomatoes!
This past weekend, I practically lived on the most gorgeous tomatoes I snapped up at Friday’s market. That evening, I whipped up a luxurious batch of tarragon-filled homemade mayonnaise that we slathered all over a heavenly dinner of fat, cold-poached wild salmon and simply salted, sliced tomatoes. Saturday evening, I was so excited to make Candi Edmondson’s soon-to-be-famous salad of the most tomato-iest oven-dried tomatoes and skinny Blue Lake beans, which paired beautifully with a batch of fried chicken we picked up from the Fremont Diner. My amazing, tomato-filled weekend climaxed with a gargantuan platter of sliced and quartered Early Girls and the season’s first golden heirlooms, unadorned except for a pitcher of my favorite homemade buttermilk dressing on the side; absolutely perfect for a hot picnic birthday party under the shady trees at Bartholomew Park.
I have never met anyone more excited and more knowledgeable about growing perfect tomatoes than Quarter Acre Farm’s Andrea Davis. Between working in her fields, operating her Friday farmer’s market stand, and hosting her own radio show, the super charming local farmer took the time to share her expert advice on growing and harvesting the tastiest tomatoes possible.
Kristin: What is the optimal time to plant tomatoes? Is it too late to plant them this year?
Andrea: I like to plant my tomatoes around April 20, but the prime time to plant in Sonoma is April 15 to May 20. Yes, right now it is too late to plant tomatoes, but surprisingly a perfect time to start planting fall crops like Brussels sprouts.
Kristin: Well, readers should start planning for next year then! How do they choose the right variety?
Andrea: It is important to remember that tomatoes are part of the night shade plant family, which means they grow at night. Tomatoes grow and mature most quickly with warm nights. Since here in Sonoma we don’t typically have warm nights, I have found the best varieties for us are heirlooms from places with cooler climates like eastern Europe, Russian, or even the upper Midwest and New England.
Kristin: What is the best method for planting tomatoes? Do they need anything special?
Andrea: I like to transplant my tomatoes deep, having the soil come up to the bottom set of leaves. All the little hairs along a tomato stem are root hairs, when they come in contact with soil they become healthy strong roots. I also prefer to have my drip irrigation on when I’m transplanting, this way they are immediately watered in and the transplant has good soil contact.
Kristin: I relate tomatoes to peak summer time meals. I bet they need plenty of sunlight?
Andrea: Tomatoes like a lot of sunlight, but remember they especially need the heat. So, if you have a location like against a wall or fence, that is best because the wall will retain heat into the night providing an extra warm microclimate for the tomatoes.
Kristin: I know there is a passionate debate amongst tomato gardeners concerning watering tomatoes, how often and how much…
Andrea: When tomatoes are young they prefer deep, heavy watering followed by a time to dry out. For example, if the newly transplanted tomatoes are on drip irrigation you would water for 30 minutes once a day. Once the tomato plant has developed green fruit, reduce the watering to every other day, or 3 to 4 days a week. At the first sign of ripening fruit, I recommend turning the water off completely for the rest of the growing season. This will help to give you the must flavorful fruit. The only reason I would break this rule and water them is if in the early morning I noticed that the top of the plant, where the new tender growth is, was wilted and dehydrated looking. In the afternoon or evening, wilted leaves are normal. If you are growing tomatoes in containers, pots or raised beds, you will have to water them occasionally after the fruit has begun to ripen because the containers heat up and dry out very quickly.
Kristin: I don’t think most people know they should prune the plants! Tell us about that.
Andrea: I believe in pruning tomatoes to increase fruit production and allow for easy harvesting. By pruning, I mean removing the suckers – that’s a technical term, I swear. The suckers are the shoots that grow in the ‘V’ between the tomato plants’ main stem and leaf branch. If you let all the suckers grow, you will end up with a huge tomato scrub with tons of branches and leaves, but since we don’t eat the leaves, we want to increase the fruit production. It is best to remove the suckers when they are small enough to pinch off. As the plant is growing I prune the suckers on a weekly basis until the fruit begins to ripen and then I stop and leave the plant alone. At that point, new sucker development doesn’t matter.”
Kristin: What are your thoughts about fertilizer?
Andrea: I recommend adding oyster shell lime (for calcium) and a natural general fertilizer when preparing your garden bed or during transplanting.
Kristin: If you could only give us one piece of advice for growing the tastiest tomatoes, what would it be?
Andrea: The flavor of the tomatoes is directly connected to watering, water too much and you water down the flavor. Tomatoes are a tough plant, they can take stress, do not be afraid to stop watering when the first tomato starts to ripen!
Kristin: I love heirloom tomatoes! Shouldn’t we all be growing those?
Andrea: Heirloom vegetables are varieties that have been saved and cultivated for over 50 years. Heirlooms are important because people have continued to grow and save the seed because of the varieties of flavor, appearance, and adaption to a local climate instead of focusing of shipping durability and shelf life, which is of great importance with industrial agriculture. So, the short answer is yes, everyone should grow heirloom tomatoes.
Kristin: I want tomatoes now! When can we harvest them?
Andrea: I don’t like to harvest my tomatoes when they are super ripe. It is too easy to damage the fruit and to lose it to a hungry critter. I find it is best to harvest the fruit when it is 75% ripe and then let if finish ripen on the kitchen counter, out of direct sunlight.
Kristin: I could eat tomatoes everyday. What do you like to do with your harvest?”
Andrea: I eat as many as I can, in every form that I can, including making tomato sauce to enjoy during the winter.
Kristin: I bet you are really busy right now. What is happening at the farm?
Andrea: It is a super busy time of year. Everything is growing fast, including the weeds. We are busy harvesting for the Friday morning farmer’s market, restaurant sales, and our CSA, which still have five shares available. It is also, incredibly, about time to start planting for the fall and winter crops.”
To stay connected to Quarter Acre Farm, follow Andrea on Facebook or be sure to check out her blog at quarteracrefarmsonoma.com. Her entertaining and educational weekly radio show, Sustainable Growing with Quarter Acre, is about how to live a local lifestyle along with advice for gardeners and farmers alike, and is on 91.3 FM on Fridays from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Summer Bean Salad
Candi Edmondson, of the locally loved and adored Paul’s Produce, prepares this beautiful salad with their skinny, Blue Lake green beans. These green beans are the most amazingly tender, mind-blowing green beans you’ll ever eat and this salad is an ideal method of showing them off! Find Paul’s Produce at the Tuesday and Friday Sonoma markets and at their Saturday-only farm stand on Arnold Drive just north of Leveroni.
Cover dried tomatoes with boiling water and let sit for 30 minutes. Then drain and chop tomatoes finely. [Just a note: once cherry tomatoes are in, I’d use those instead of dried.] Steam or boil beans until almost done, about 5-7 minutes. Shock beans to stop cooking in ice water and drain. Sauté onions until soft and let cool. Toast pine nuts in a dry pan and let cool.
Mix dressing ingredients together. [Note on dressing ingredients: I’ll often use lemon juice with the balsamic. I love the lemon olive oil available locally, and like to mix in a little hemp and/or flax oil.]
Mix all the ingredients together and dress. It’s great at room temperature, or cold. I love to add fresh herbs to top it off, parsley, dill, basil, whatever you have on hand.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at firstname.lastname@example.org.