Santa Rosa garden guru answers all your tomato questions

Stephen Albert’s “Tomato Grower’s Answer Book” probably covers anything you would want to know about choosing, planting, pruning, feeding, maintaining and harvesting America’s favorite fruit.|

If there is one mistake fledgling gardeners make most often, says food gardening guru Stephen Albert, it’s jumping the gun on the growing season. The sun may be shining and the calendar has flipped to spring, but the soil says, “Wait a minute.”

Too many people excitedly buy seed or starts at the first sign of spring. But the earth has yet to catch up and is too cold, leading to lackluster growth.

Instead, curb your enthusiasm and prepare your beds or pots with good soil before racing down to the nursery for seeds and starts.

“It’s true for almost all summer vegetable crops. Don’t plant too soon. Wait until we have average night temperatures in the mid ’60s,” said Albert, a Santa Rosa resident who has developed a large and loyal following for his gardening tips website Harvest to Table (

In most of Sonoma County, May is the time to plant warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers. You need not only the outside temperature to be warm but the soil as well - at least ?65 degrees.

In his many years of advising other gardeners - through his website and in workshops, garden club and master gardener talks and appearances at tomato festivals - Albert has fielded hundreds of questions about tomatoes. It inspired him to fill a book with them: “Tomato Grower’s Answer Book.”

Released in time for spring planting, the guide ($20.33 paperback or $9.99 Kindle on Amazon) includes 400 questions presented in a Q-and-A format and organized into 27 different topics, from vine and bush tomatoes to seed saving.

“As a master gardener, I started out just giving talks about growing vegetables. But the topic of tomatoes was so popular I started giving talks just about tomatoes,” he said. “There were some years we’d have 100 people, a whole roomful, coming just to learn about tomatoes and ask about tomatoes.”

Tomatoes not only are included in so many of America’s favorite foods, from pizza and pasta to salads and sandwiches, they provide a big bang for your buck given how pricey fresh tomatoes can be at the grocery store and farmer’s markets, even in season.

“Everybody likes tomatoes. You can eat them raw, you can cook them, you can preserve them, you can juice them. They’re just so versatile,” he said.

Albert learned to vegetable garden from his parents while growing up in the San Joaquin Valley surrounded by farms. He’s gardened since then in all kinds of climates, from Massachusetts to Iowa to Florida to California’s Central Coast. His gardens have ranged from half a dozen planter boxes on a balcony to a half acre. Now he has right-sized to five medium-sized raised beds in his Oakmont yard.

In 2008 he started his Harvest to Table website and has filled it with tips on growing, harvesting and cooking food plants. The site draws up to 12 million unique visits a week, a testament to the exploding popularity of food gardening. It includes 60 articles on tomatoes alone.

Every week he fields about 100 questions from followers. His advice to them: stay positive and keep trying.

“There is no such thing as a black thumb,” Albert said. “Most of these crops want to grow. All you’ve got to do is to be there for them, visit them and see how they’re doing every day. Experience is the best teacher, and there are plenty of people around who will help you through your hard times.”

So what are a few of his best tips for home gardeners who want to grow their ideal “tommies?”

There are tons of varieties to choose from, but you won’t go wrong selecting varieties that will keep you in tomatoes all summer. Plant one early-season variety such as Early Girl, Stupice or Oregon Spring. These tomatoes are good for slicing and will mature quickly, within 55 to 65 days after you transplant the seedlings. So if you plant one now, you could be adorning sandwiches and salads before the end of June.

Also plant a mid-season variety that matures in 70 to 80 days. Albert’s favorites are Celebrity, Black Krim, Green Zebra and Lemon Boy. To push your harvest into autumn, plant a late-season variety such as Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Lemon Boy, Ponderosa, San Marzano, Abraham Lincoln, Pink Brandywine, Big Boy or Ace 55. These typically are big beefsteak tomatoes that take more than 80 days to mature. The late-harvest varieties can keep producing deep into the autumn. Albert’s record for latest tomato harvested in Santa Rosa is Dec. 25. And finally, if you have only a small space and want to grow in pots, try Red Robin, Yellow Pear, Green Grape or Sweet 100.

Fun Fact: If your tommies don’t ripen before cold weather sets in, don’t despair. Pick your green tomatoes and bring them inside. Most will eventually ripen, even out of direct sunlight.

Albert’s recipe for growing the best tomatoes is to put composted manure into the bottom of your planting hole and add a handful of bone meal and a tablespoon of Epsom salt. This will help prevent blossom-end rot, which strikes early-season tomatoes.

“The most common question I get is, ‘How come I can’t grow tomatoes?’ Well, you can. It really wasn’t your fault. It’s easily corrected.”

What is the difference between a determinate and an indeterminate tomato? Determinate tomatoes are bush-size, growing 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. Once they set flowers and fruit at the ends of their branches, the plant stops growing and the fruit ripens over four to six weeks, then dies. They sprawl and need support. A few varieties include Tumblin’ Tom, Tiny Tim and Roma. Indeterminate tomato plants are tall and vining, sometimes reaching 14 feet, and can grow almost continuously until the first frost. At least two thirds of tomatoes are indeterminate and include popular varieties such as Early Girl, Sweet 100, Bonny Best, Better Boy, Pink Brandywine and Better Boy.

Albert suggests with these prolific vining and indeterminate tomato plants that you start to pinch the growing tips of each branch a third of the way into the growing season. You will produce just as many tomatoes as you would if you didn’t prune, he said, but they will be larger and will ripen more quickly.

During the hot August days, don’t let your tomatoes burn. As soon as you start to see them turning red, pick them and let them finish ripening off the vine.

Albert also explores in the book the diseases and pests that can hurt tomatoes. But his message to beginners is to not be afraid.

“Gardening is a fun thing to do,” he said. “I just want to encourage everybody to grow a tomato plant this summer. It looks like we’re going to have some time on our hands, so it’s a good time to plant a garden.”

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.