Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardeners: Tips for Growing Great Tomatoes, Favorite Summer Annuals, Q&A on Herbs

Ready to grow the perfect tomato?  Start here.

Goodbye, dark dreary days of rain. The sun is finally out and warm weather is upon us.  The first thing on many a gardener’s mind – it must fd.Tomato.54.rwh.8/9/06be time to plant my tomatoes!  There are fewer things better than picking a juicy, red tomato from the vine. But wait; let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Tomatoes require warm nights as well as warm days, and those are short-lived here in the Pacific Northwest. Do not despair, my fellow tomato lovers – there are ways to successfully grow those tasty gems if we just remember a few basic steps.

First, all tomatoes are not alike. Some require more time to mature than others.  In our maritime climate, success is at hand if you choose varietals that take the fewest days to mature‘Early Girl’ is a very early maturing tomato and one of the most widely grown in the Puget Sound area, easily found at most local nurseries.  Also prized for their short maturity times are ‘Stupice’, ‘Early Swedish’ and ‘Early Cascade’.  Notice a pattern here?  Excellent cherry-type varieties for our area are ‘Sweet 100’, ‘Sweet Million’, ‘Sun Gold’, and ‘Yellow Pear’.

Second, there are ways to help Mother Nature by creating more heat in your garden.  Tomatoes will set fruit once nighttime temperatures remain about 60 degrees.  You can help retain the heat of the day and extend it into the night by using colored plastic around your tomato plants or planting them near a south, or west, facing wall to catch radiant heat.

Third, and last – make it last.  No one wants to put all their energy into growing beautiful tomatoes just to have them fall victim to damage or disease. There are a few simple precautions to take:

  • Provide enough space between plants to have good air flow and keep the foliage as dry as possible.
  • Stake your plants, especially the varieties mentioned above; they all have an indeterminate growth habit, meaning they will continue to grow and set fruit until frost. Keep the bottom leaves off the ground.
  • Groom the plants to encourage tomato quality. Selectively remove some flowers and the smaller green tomatoes so that the plant can channel the energy to mature more likely candidates.
  • Go easy on high-nitrogen fertilizers that will put more growth in the foliage than in the fruit, and aim for the most consistent soil moisture level possible.

Armed with this simple 1-2-3 approach, anyone can have the confidence to get out there and grow tomatoes – even in the Pacific Northwest!


Plants we love:  Summer annuals

Summer annuals are a lot like Rodney Dangerfield: sometimes they “get no respect” in the garden world.  They’re not rare. They’re not hard to grow. They’re short-lived. So where’s the challenge?  But the savvy gardener knows a garden isn’t quite complete without them.   Sure, a beautiful garden has great bones – foundation plantings such as ornamental trees, hedges, grasses, and perennials are what make the essence of a garden space.  But if we think of these as analogous of the wardrobe essential little black dress, what’s a little black dress without a little bit of accessorizing?  That’s what summer annuals do best – accessorize our gardens. They pull the whole look together, add a color blast, make it standout and complete.

Some favorites that do an outstanding job accessorizing the garden:

Full sun Cosmos, with their feathery leaves, sway in the breeze and attract bees.  Anything that brings pollinators into your garden is a big plus.  Zinnias, drought-tolerant annuals suited to our dry summers are available in all heights and colors – pink, red, yellow, orange and white – are the perfect addition in any summer bouquet.

Shade – What Northwest gardener doesn’t have a couple Fuchsia-filled hanging baskets? They’re like a big pair of chandelier earrings for your porch: hummingbirds love them!  Coleus is a stand out for its big, colorful foliage – a perfect complement to spillers and spikes in your containers. Look for ones with chartreuse leaves – the lime-green color really draws the eye in a dark space.

Remember these helpful hints when choosing and planting annuals: 

  • Keep summertime carefree by putting drought tolerant annuals in the garden bed and thirsty ones in your patio containers.
  • Resist the urge to pick up the flats bursting with blooms; instead choose ones with more buds.
  • When it’s time to plant, shorten leggy plants by pinching back to a leaf to encourage fullness.

So go ahead, indulge in a little garden bling.  And when summer’s gone, garden cleanup will be just as simple as getting rid of your worn out flip-flops.  Just pull them up, and pitch them out.


Q&A Herbs

Q: I would love to grow fresh herbs, but I only have a small space.  Which ones should I choose?

A: Herbs are great in small places, including windowsills, patio containers and raised garden beds.  As long as there are 6 hours of sunlight, good soil and drainage, herbs will be content to grow just about anywhere.

Choosing herbs to grow depends upon personal preference and use. Enjoy cooking?  Many a chef appreciates the convenience of fresh herbs within easy reach of their kitchen.  Did you know there are more than 50 culinary herbs?  If you like Italian food, consider a combination of Basil, Oregano, Parsley and RosemaryBasil is a key ingredient to pesto.  Enjoy French cooking?  A bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs – typically Thyme, Bay Leaves and Sage – tied together with string and used to flavor soups and stews.  It may also include Parsley, Chervil and Tarragon.

Consider herbs in drinks and desserts as well.  One of the most diverse of these is Mint – the menthol fragrance is so refreshing – and there are so many varieties from which to choose: peppermint, spearmint, lemon, chocolate, pineapple to name just a few. One note of caution when growing mint – given the chance, it will take over your entire garden – it’s a vigorous grower and will spread quickly. The best way to grow mint is in a container.

You may also want to consider planting herbs among your flowers – combining nutrition with decoration – and maximizing your planting space.

Additional information on growing tomatoes and sustainable gardening practices can be found on our website at Bring your gardening questions to the Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardeners at the North Bend Farmers Market through September.

[The author, Debbie Martin, is a master gardener intern in the WSU Extension Master Garden]

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