Part 1: Tomatoes in Southeast San Francisco, 2024

Last year was my first successful year growing healthy, productive tomatoes in my San Francisco garden. Late blight has taken out every other tomato crop I have tried here in San Francisco, and for a couple years after a devastating 2021 late blight attack, frustrated, I didn't grow any tomatoes. But, tomatoes rival tree fruit as a reason to grow food in your own garden. Even farmers market tomatoes don't compare to the most perfectly ripe, fragrant, heavy fruit from a summer garden. Bring it inside, the fruit still warm from the sun and arms stained green from the vines, and slurp it up with salt, like a bloody, slippery organ. Tomatoes bring out one's cannibal self. 

What made the difference last year was lots and lots of research, specifically focused on the most blight resistant hybrids that tasted good. I had to give up on heirloom tomatoes in my garden because of the disease pressure and my refusal to spray regularly with antifungals. So last year I grew three hybrid varieties to fit into three categories: cherry, slicer, and paste. 

The three varieties were good, and one I would even say excellent. Cherry Bomb F1, grew incredibly vigorously and gave me tons of very yummy cherry tomatoes, especially later in the season. With two vines, I was able to eat what I wanted, roast some for a couple batches of roasted cherry tomato sauce, and give some away. Damsel F1 was the slicer I grew last year. The fruit from it were tasty, but they weren't productive in my garden, and many of them got early blight right at the calyx, where dew would settle in the morning, collected by the fruit's shoulders. Sometimes the early blight was bad enough that the fruit would fall from the vine, but most of the time, it just led to a fruit that required surgery before eating. Plum Perfect F1 was the paste tomato of the bunch, and it was okay. Some of the fruit suffered from early blight, like Damsel, though it appeared in a different way. My previous experiences growing paste varieties led me to expect extreme production; Plum Perfect did not perform accordingly, though the fruit that I did get made delicious sauce and salsas. With all three varieties, I was vigilant about removing any foliage that looked weird, and all three showed a season's worth of resistance to late blight. In other words, I grew some great tasting tomatoes. You know me though—some is not enough. I want hordes of tomatoes.

This year, I kept Cherry Bomb, planting two vines, and nixed Damsel and Plum Perfect. To fulfill the paste slot, I chose Plum Regal F1. I put in three plants and these are the bushiest determinate tomato plants I've ever grown. The leaves are so dense that I've had to remove some leaves from the center of the plants to allow for air circulation and and for the flowers to have enough room to shake down their pollen. The plants are loaded with flowers that are now setting fruit. So far, I haven't witnessed any evidence of disease on these three vines.

I chose a slicer and a beefsteak to replace Damsel. I planted two vines of Strawberry Fields F1, a pink slicer, that has super thick-stemmed vines with big fat flowers, but so far has not set many fruit. I also planted two vines of Abigail F1, a pink beefsteak. These two plants are growing enthusiastically and setting many ribbed, strong shouldered fruit.

I started my tomatoes on a heat mat under lights in late February, potted them up and moved them out to my makeshift greenhouse once they had true leaves, and planted them out in the garden the second week of April. While planted relatively closely due to space constraints, they're stacked to best take advantage of the sun (tallest in the northeast corner of the bed, shortest on the south side of the bed) and I relentlessly prune lower leaves to allow a lot of air movement around the plants. Additionally, I remove suckers from Strawberry Fields and Abigail.

The vines on June 21st, 2024.

So many flowers on Plum Regal. July 3rd, 2024.

No leaves touch the ground in this bed!  July 3rd, 2024.

Fruit on Abigail.  July 3rd, 2024.

Cherry Bomb fruit (and aphids) in foreground; Abigail in background.

Right now, my tomato plants are just hope machines. We'll see if the fruit they are setting makes it to ripeness. I've been heartbroken before. Later this season, I'll see if hope comes to fruition, and whatever I learn, I will share it here.


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