Tomatoes are an incredibly fun, easy and giving plant to grow everywhere except areas that get heavy fog in the summer. Sound familiar? Don’t be discouraged and don’t give up. That uncle of yours, the one in the Central Valley, or even Oakland who brags about how he grows grows huge beefsteak tomatoes can’t grow reliable summer lettuce, beets, peas, and radishes to complete a salad like we can here. And we can grow tomatoes, just not big ones.

Tomatoes are actually a perennial plant native to the South American tropics. I have had plants live up to three years in my green house here in San Francisco, half a mile from the ocean.

I built that green house after a heart breaking year where all my tomatoes died following two weeks of heavy fog. Did I mention that I had grew those tomatoes from seed indoors in December? And that they were six feet tall with hundreds of tiny green tomatoes when our July fog decimated them? Since then I have become extremely serious about tomatoes. Here are some tricks I have learned:

This month is when you can actually plant tomatoes in the ground outside. In my community garden I can see evidence of tomato growers trying to get an early start by planting in April and failing. Cold temperatures are common with April storms like the ones we just had can cause stunting and sometimes killing them completely.

I know, it is just so tempting to buy that first tomato plant you see in the nursery, but keep in mind most nurseries are retail stores like any other. Summer attire is often sold in the Spring when the weather is starting to get better, but it’s not quite flip flop season. Same goes for plants. Be patient and hold off.

The best advice I can give about tomatoes is to try and imagine them in their native habitat. South American jungles are very hot, and there are plenty of trees for them to climb up. So plant your tomatoes when the last chance of cold nights are behind us, in May, and plant them in the warmest, not necessarily the sunniest part of your garden.

That means up against a white wall or fence, and up on a protected deck in large 15 gallon black plastic pots. Also, plant them deep. My Italian father-in-law taught me this one, and those Italians have tomatoes pumping through their veins, literally, I think.

This means if you purchase a tomato that is 12 inches tall, bury half the plant under the ground when you plant it, leaves and all! The buried section turns into part of a now extended root ball creating a much healthier, stronger plant in July when it needs all the help it can get.

Try smaller varieties first, like cherry tomatoes. These are easy and will almost certainly produce fruit. As you gain more experience try some moderately sized tomatoes like a “stupice” or “green zebra”.

Give your tomatoes lots of support when you plant them. Pre-fabricated tomato cages are way too small and it’s easy to build one yourself. Remember to picture that South American jungle where you’ll need to climb forty feet up a tree to harvest ripe tomatoes! An 8 foot tee-pee-shaped structure made from redwood stakes available anywhere will last you several years, and in the winter you can grow sugar snap peas up it.

Do not use a fertilizer high in nitrogen as we want flowers and fruit as fast as possible, for as long as possible. Try an organic fertilizer that reads something like 2-10-10 and always apply at half to three quarters the recommended strength once a month.

And, finally, for those of you who are really adventurous, right when your first batch of tomatoes are starting to ripen, cut off the water completely. This is called ” dry farming” and it pushes the tomato to force all of its energy into the ripening process. thereby giving extra sugar and flavor to our successful harvest.

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