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Plant Life
Tomato Tricks
In the race for ripeness, here's how to pick a winner

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In the cool, wet Northwest, getting tomatoes to reach this kind of luscious perfection is a challenge.
As the weather warms up, the race is on to ripen tomatoes. Gardeners often judge an entire summer's weather based on when and whether their favorite vegetable (which, botanically speaking, is really a fruit) ripens that season. Since we rarely enjoy more than a few days over 80 degrees in an entire year, bringing tomatoes to their peak of sweetness becomes a quest and sometimes an obsession. I set out on my own quest for tomato knowledge, and the search led me to Wally Prestbo, a.k.a. Mr. Tomato.

Prestbo earns his alias by producing 3,200 plants each year for the Master Gardener plant sale. In addition, he grows 24 different varieties for the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden in Bellevue, including unusual varieties such as 'Tumbler,' which is ideal for hanging baskets, and the striped heirloom 'Green Zebra.' This is the place to check out and slurp up tomatoes because each variety is labeled, 15 staking techniques are demonstrated and (here's where the slurping comes in) the Master Gardeners hold a public taste testing at the September Harvest Festival.

So what are the tricks to growing great tomatoes? Prestbo is full of advice. Among his greatest tips:

• First, know what you're looking for. There are two basic kinds of tomatoes: Indeterminants are taller because they grow, flower and fruit until frost. 'Early Girl' and 'Burpee's Burger' are examples. Determinant tomatoes are bushier, shorter and better for growing in pots. 'Northern Exposure' and 'Sweet Tangerine' are popular determinants.

It's worth noting that 'Oregon Spring' is always the first tomato at the test garden to ripen, followed by 'Fourth of July' (usually weeks later than its name); 'Early Girl' comes in third. 'Sungold,' a yellow cherry tomato, wins the blind taste testing at the Harvest Festival each year.

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Now In
Hardy geraniums are dependable long bloomers that fill out and fluff up the June garden. G. renardii has handsome leaves as well as pretty flowers. The little gray-green scalloped leaves are topped with saucer-shaped flowers in delicate shades of white to pale lavender veined in violet.
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• When shopping for tomatoes, avoid pale-green, spindly plants in 2-inch pots, as their root systems are already deficient. Look for short, dark-green plants with sturdy stems in at least 4-inch pots — they'll put on plenty of top-growth once roots are well-established. And you know those little tags that say how many days it takes each variety to ripen? 'T ain't so, says Prestbo. It totally depends on how many sunny days we have, and usually takes longer than it says. If you grow from seed, he recommends Territorial Seed Co., whose varieties are all tested in the Willamette Valley, in conditions similar to our own. (50 Palmer Ave., Cottage Grove, OR 97424; 541-942-9547; a catalog is free).

• Prestbo sounds like a realtor as he reiterates "location, location, location." Tomatoes do best in a raised bed against a south-facing wall for reflected heat. Anything else still needs to provide the consistent heat tomatoes crave and a minimum six hours of direct sunlight each day.

• Soil is another vital component, and Prestbo suggests a good organic humus with compost and manure mixed in. When and how the plants are put into the ground is important, too. Usually around Mother's Day is fine for planting or transplanting, but tomatoes just sit there until the soil temperature reaches 55 degrees. One of Prestbo's best tricks: Plant the tomato so deeply that most of the stem and all but the top two layers of leaves are underground, as roots will develop along all the stem that is under the earth. With taller tomatoes, he digs a trench and bends the stem so the roots develop in the warmer soil near the surface.

• Tomatoes need staking. Pound a piece of rebar deep into the ground to stabilize the tomato cage, so that when the plant is heavy with fruit it won't topple over.

• Never water from above; water on the leaves causes fungus to grow. Water thoroughly twice a week until the end of August, then much less to stress the plant so the fruit will ripen before the weather gets too chilly.

Talk to the masters

The Urban Demonstration Garden is in the Lake Hills area of Bellevue, at Southeast 16th Street and 156th Avenue Southeast. Wally Prestbo and other master gardeners are available to answer questions every Wednesday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For information on this year's events, call the MG Hot Line at 206-296-3440.

Valerie Easton is manager at the Miller Horticultural Library. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

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