Tomatoes: they are a labor of love to grow in this climate. With only 60 frost-free growing days to count on in our beautiful Valley (July 4th through Labor Day, and even then, not always), temperamental tomatoes are not an easy plant to grow. Still, for many gardeners, tomatoes are a passion and delight. South Valley residents may have a bit of a growing advantage over their northern neighbors, but tomato growers throughout the Valley must be willing to coax, cover and closely nurture these slowly ripening beauties if they actually want to have and eat their tomatoes, too. Talk to a few of the Valley’s most experienced gardeners and they’ll tell you tomatoes are not worth the effort for the crop. Still, I love my homegrown tomatoes. Even though I can’t always count on a bumper crop, nothing beats eating a juicy, warm tomato fresh from the garden. If it’s the only homegrown tomato I’ll eat all summer, it’s worth it!
There are no great secrets or foolproof systems for growing tomatoes successfully in the Wood River Valley. Those of us who have been growing tomatoes (or attempting to grow them) through the years have tried a variety of planting methods with different seeds or plants. Some gardeners grow their tomatoes in containers so they can move them into a sheltered area on frosty nights. Some gardeners have better luck when their tomato plants are firmly planted in the ground. Tomato growing takes experimentation. What works for a neighbor or a friend five miles away simply might not work for you. Knowing your immediate gardening environment can help you make better decisions about where and how to grow tomato plants successfully at your home. Remembering that the weather through some summers simply won’t accommodate tomato growing will keep you sane.
After gardening 25 years in Ketchum and Sun Valley, Susan Michael has had time to see what really works when it comes to growing tomatoes in the cooler, north end of the Valley. Michael lives out in the Board Ranch on Warm Springs Road beyond the ski lifts. In the shadow of Bald Mountain, it is one of the colder drainages in the Wood River Valley. “The most important thing to know about tomatoes is they need more constant temperatures,” Michael explains. Temperatures here, however, can fluctuate more than 40 degrees on any given summer day. Where Michael lives, she finds that she grows tomatoes most successfully in five-gallon pots. By keeping her plants in pots she is able to move them through the seasons to give them the best sun exposure and bring them inside during a hard frost.
Michael also emphasizes the importance of using the right soil with the right plants. “Getting the right plant in the right soil,” Michael explains, “is the best way to get good results.” The right soil, as Michael describes it, should be good, composted garden soil, not bagged potting soil or bagged compost. “Get real compost, from your own compost pile if possible,” Michael suggests. This, she explains, not only helps in growing healthy plants, it also really improves the flavor of the tomatoes. If growing tomatoes from seed, which Michael recommends, be sure to get seeds with the shortest maturation periods. Michael points out that even if you don’t have a lot of space in your home for starting seeds, it’s possible to start just 10 to 12 seeds in late March or early April and then pick the two best seedlings to transplant to pots in June. If starting tomatoes from seed is simply not possible, Michael explains the importance of buying locally grown seedlings that are accustomed to this Valley’s temperature conditions. “Definitely don’t buy a mature plant. Chances are, the fruits already growing on it will be the only fruits you get.” Cherry tomatoes have worked really well for Michael at her home. She doesn’t get enough of a crop to can or freeze tomato sauce, but she and her family are enjoying a few tomatoes every night from late August through October. “Tomato growing isn’t always successful and it depends on the year,” Michael concludes. “Give it three years. If it doesn’t work after that, then it’s time to give it up.”
Wood River Organics’ Judd McMahan, like Michael, also recommends using containers to grow tomatoes north of East Fork. McMahan suggests planting the Whippersnapper, a one-inch, oval-shaped cherry tomato; the Koralik, a small red cherry tomato; and Kotlas, a golf-ball size red tomato, in containers. These plants have 50 to 60 day maturation periods, are cold tolerant, and produce well in containers. >>>
Mid-Valley resident, Cindy Hamlin, grows her tomatoes in slightly raised beds with rocks around the border to contain heat. Hamlin used to start her tomatoes from seed, but now uses starts—a far less laborious process. Her favorites include Heirloom varieties available at various garden centers and special spring sales. The Hamlins also raise llamas on their property just south of Greenhorn Gulch so Cindy uses llama manure exclusively to amend and fertilize the soil in her garden beds. Hamlin starts deadheading her tomato plants in September when the air starts to chill, clipping the yellow blooms on the plants to encourage the tomatoes to grow and ripen. Inevitably, she has to pick a number of green tomatoes off her plants before the nights get too cold. By wrapping her tomatoes in paper and storing them in a cool dark place, she is often able to enjoy eating ripe tomatoes through December.
West Hailey gardener, Bobb Raziano, chooses to start his tomatoes from seed. Raziano has used High Altitude Seed Trust’s tomato seeds for years with great success. In late March or early April, Raziano gets his seeds started inside. After years of transplanting his starts into containers, this spring Raziano planted his tomatoes in a newly dug garden bed. He found his plants grew larger and produced more fruit in their new fixed place in the garden.
Raziano’s favorite growing tomatoes include the Siberian varieties first collected by High Altitude Seed Trust’s founder, Bill McDorman, on a trip to Siberia in 1989. One of McDorman’s missions on that trip was to discover seeds and growing techniques from other cold climates that would work here in the Wood River Valley. McDorman returned to the Wood River Valley with 60 varieties of tomato seeds, grew them all out, and chose 24 varieties that worked well here in a higher altitude climate. High Altitude Seed Trust continues to sell those 24 seed varieties today.
Tomatoes thrive in heat and sun. Planting tomatoes against a south-facing building or wall creates an even hotter environment for the plants as the wall also absorbs the sun’s heat and radiates it to the plants. Picabo gardener, Vicki Riedel, plants her tomatoes in black containers against a south-facing wall. To give her plants even more warmth, she places clear plastic jugs filled with water around the base of each plant. Usually, these environmental amendments help Riedel produce a bountiful crop. This past year, however, Mother Nature nipped a few of Riedel’s plants when a hard frost hit Picabo in August (it did not freeze in Ketchum and Hailey that night). Early Girl, Roma and Super Sweet 100s are Riedel’s favorite and most abundant producing tomato varieties.
Tomato growing is not for the faint of heart. A surprise frost, a cooler summer, a garden-trampling dog or toddler can indiscriminately dash a gardener’s dreams of tomato-filled salads or delicious red sauces. Beyond a palatable passion for tomatoes, it takes a love of experimentation and learning, and a sense of adventure, to grow tomatoes in this Valley.