Jill Severn's Gardening Column

Don’t even think about tomatoes

There are plenty of other vegetables you can and should plant now


A very eager gardener wants to know whether it’s time to plant tomatoes yet.

No! Don’t even think about tomatoes.

Just because it’s not snowing, hailing or freezing this week does not mean we can count on good weather from now on. We might get lucky, but don’t bet on it. The fact that every garden department and nursery is stocking tomato plants doesn’t mean it’s safe to plant them outside.

Don’t even buy tomato plants now unless you have a greenhouse or a sunny enclosed porch to keep them in for a while. Wait until mid- or even late May. Ditto for other frost-averse plants like squash, cucumbers, basil, eggplant and peppers. These are all plants that like warm soil as well as warm air.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other vegetables you can and should plant now: spinach, lettuce, arugula, potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas (although really, who wants rutabagas?), radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, chard, peas, celery, and collards.

That should be enough to keep you busy and out of trouble, and keep your mind off of your tomato fixation.

The eager gardener’s next question was one I couldn’t answer: What varieties of tomatoes should he grow?

And even though we shouldn’t be thinking about tomatoes, that question made me think about tomatoes.

Choosing tomato varieties gets more complicated by the year, mainly because there are more of them. The advent of the loosely-defined “heirloom” varieties is one reason; the continuing work of plant breeders who churn out brand new hybrids is another.

Here are two things to know:

  • Most newer varieties are more likely to be resistant to various dreadful diseases that can wipe out your crop and infect your soil.
  • Heirloom varieties are often more flavorful – sometimes a lot more flavorful.

So the risk and reward profile should factor into our choices. Last year I threw caution to the wind and planted two heirloom varieties. One was Cherokee Purple, and the other, whose name I’ve already forgotten, was a big beefsteak tomato. Both did fine, and remained disease-free. Both also kept me waiting; they ripened quite late in the season. And the risk of disease made me nervous any time a single leaf looked like it was having a bad day.

This year I may take a more cautious approach. The heirloom beefsteak I grew last year didn’t taste noticeably better than the newer varieties, so I think I’ll grow one of the disease-resistant newer ones. And as much as I liked Cherokee Purple, I think I will opt for an earlier, safer choice this year, and splurge on a Cherokee Purple now and then at the Farmers Market.

Researching tomato varieties can be a very complicated project. The scientifically literate gardener may want to understand why heirloom varieties, which are surely not native species, behave differently from modern hybrids. Aren’t heirloom varieties just older hybrids? This is a mystery to me. If you save seeds from heirlooms, we’re told, they will produce exactly the same plant characteristics as the parent plant, but if you save seeds from modern hybrids, they will revert to one or the other of their parents. Is it because the heirlooms were naturally occurring hybrids rather than human-engineered hybrids? And why would that make a difference?

If you can explain why, please do.

In the meantime, we ordinary gardeners will do the best we can to maximize flavor, lengthen the harvest season, and minimize our risk of dreadful plant diseases. And we will hope, over the course of the coming year, to stumble onto sources of reliable, plain-English explanations for puzzling garden phenomena.

But first we will get wet and muddy knees while planting and tending all those early, frost-hardy vegetables, and pulling the weeds that are already sprouting among our earliest plantings.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • valerie

    I just use Ed Hume's favorite tomato: Early Girl. I get tomatoes every year. Love your columns, Jill. So witty.

    Friday, April 22 Report this

  • sunshine39

    Helpful, And you didn't even get into determinate and indeterminate. Maybe next week?

    Saturday, April 23 Report this