Identify Your Mystery Plants

When adding a plant to your garden, best practice includes knowing about the plant’s growing needs and mature size. Retail sources of plants should and usually do provide such basic facts on a label or catalog entry. The gardener could make do with that information or could dig a little deeper in a reference book like Sunset’s Western Garden Book, or through the growing riches of online resources

To learn more about a given plant, begin with the botanical name, which is the plant’s unique identifier. Common names might be helpful in finding a plant’s botanical name: some garden books will cross-reference common and botanical names, and a web search for a common name might turn up the botanical name. Another strategy, especially when acquiring a plant from another gardener, is to ask the donor or members of a local garden society that specializes in the plant of interest. The most dedicated gardeners often will come up with the correct name, but for those who will only hazard a guess, check the name with a reliable source.

On occasion when an unfamiliar plant lacks a name, there’s no one to ask, and your curiosity reigns, the Internet will save the day.

The Internet offers various online plant identification resources, but they are mostly automated operations and not very accurate. To be less than polite, some are outrageously bad and a waste of time.

One online plant identifier that works quite well and with impressive speed is the National Gardening Association’s Plant ID Forum. Its accuracy and efficiency are derived from the participation of actual living gardeners, rather than the current generation of computers. (A future machine might outperform all horticulturists in plant ID tasks, but it’s not here yet.)

I frequently need the name of unlabeled plants that I see in a private or public garden, or that I acquire at a garden exchange. A recent column (ongardening.com/?p=2925) included a photo of a mystery plant seen at a garden tour.

Firecracker Plant

Firecracker Plant

The Plant ID Forum quickly identified it as a Firecracker Plant (Russelia equisetiformis ), an impressive Mexican shrub with a specific name that compares it to the horsetail rush. My next step is to find a source for this plant.

At a local garden exchange, I acquired two small plants that were mysteries to me, so I sent photos to the Plant ID Forum.

Creeping Fucshia

Creeping Fucshia

I soon learned that one is a Creeping Fuchsia (Fuchsia procumbens) that is a New Zealand native, thought to be the world’s smallest fuchsia, and categorized as an endangered species due to habitat loss. Quite a discovery!

 

 

 

 

Young Peperomia Plant

Coin Leaf Peperomia

My other mystery plant from the garden exchange is a Coin Leaf Peperomia or Baby Rubber Plant (Peperomia polybotrya ‘Variegata’), which is native to the Andes Mountains of Peru. I learned that it’s primarily for its foliage, and thrives as a houseplant in indirect light.

 

 

 

Your plants need not be mysteries! Sign up for the Plant ID Forum, a free service of the National Gardening Association.  Once you have established this connection, explore the website’s several forums and other features. If you have gardening questions other than finding the name of a mystery plant, try the Ask a Question Forum, which is a fairly new feature of this site. It welcomes the full range of inquiries, from “there are no stupid questions” to “stump the experts.” It can be quite useful in broadening your gardening knowledge

Daisy Tree for Dramatic Effect

My Daisy Tree is a doozy!

I first encountered this striking plant during a visit, several years ago, to the Esalen Institute. A gardener at the Institute told me its name, and later I found a small specimen to add to my garden.

This is Montanoa grandiflora, a native of southern Mexico (around Mexico City) and some other Central American countries. The plant was named for Luis Jose Montana (1755-1820), a physician, politician and amateur botanist. The specific epithet “grandiflora” is often applied to certain roses, but it just means “large flowers” and is applied to some other plants as well. For this plant, a different rose term, “multiflora” (many small blooms) would be more accurate.

The Daisy Tree is a member of the Sunflower tribe (Heliantheae) of the enormous Aster family (Asteraceae), and a relative to several familiar garden flowers: CoreopsisCosmosEchinaceaRudbeckia, and Zinnia, as well as the commercially important sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke. The Montanoa genus includes thirty-five species. Surprisingly, none of these are listed in Sunset’s Western Garden Book.

This plant grows well in full sun in the Monterey Bay area’s climate and is winter-hardy down to the mid-20s (which do not concern local gardeners).

Daisy Tree - long shot

Daisy Tree
Montanoa grandiflora

The Daisy Tree’s uniqueness comes first from its size. It grows up to twelve feet high and twelve feet wide (mine is about ten by ten). Its second feature is its floriferous nature. Some reports indicate that its flowers can be so abundant as to conceal the foliage, but I can still see my plant’s large lobed leaves. It’s possible that a little irrigation and fertilizer would increase the floral yield; my plant has grown on its own, without my assistance.

Daisy Tree Blossoms

Daisy Tree Blossoms

 

 

 

The flowers are unremarkable individually, but they appear in late October or early November and could last into early December. They create a fine display and provide a pleasantly sweet fragrance that suggests chocolate or vanilla. Some sniffers have found the fragrance resembles that of freshly baked cupcakes, so the blossoms might recall one’s own olfactory memories.

After the blossoms fade, attractive chartreuse seed heads last through the winter.

In early spring, horticulturists recommend cutting a Montanoa grandiflora hard to allow the development of new sprouts from the base.

This might seem like drastic action for such a large shrub, but that treatment has worked fine for another large Mexican native in my garden, the Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis). My garden includes a stand of Tree Dahlias. I cut them to the ground last spring and they have now reached about thirty feet high and are about the begin blooming (a little later than the Tree Daisy.

Tree Dahlia- Long Shot

Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis)

Traa Dahlia Blossom

Tree Dahlia Blossom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stunning annual growth cycle of these larger plants demonstrates their vigor, and their presence in the garden provides wonder and beauty. The bees enjoy them as well!

The Tree Daisy and Tree Dahlia are not commonly available in garden centers, in my experience, but both are available as small plants via mail order from Annie’s Annuals.

Most gardens can accommodate a few really large plants. While appropriate placement is always important, they can provide a dramatic feature to the landscape.

Alternatives to Trendy Plants

When thinking about irises, gardeners—and all garden groupies—envision the tall bearded varieties. Decades of hybridizers have tweaked these plants to produce luscious colors, fascinating forms, great productivity and disease resistance. They are excellent plants that are easy to grow and great assets in the landscape.

The same can be said of roses and tulips, which include popular garden selections that have been hybridized through multiple generations to produce qualities that qualify them as “super plants.”

The hybridizers are creative, imaginative, and extraordinarily painstaking and patient as they build upon past successes and pursue horticultural perfection, the definition of which continues to evolve.

Home gardeners who enjoy these plants can be drawn into the endless process of acquiring the latest introductions featured in each season’s mail-order catalog photos. Each offers something a bit different and better than its predecessors.

For many gardeners, this process can be absorbing and defining of the essence of gardening.

Consider an adventuresome alternative: stepping off the bandwagon and exploring the vast array of related, less fashionable plants that can be equally beautiful with a more natural look, often relatively free of pests and diseases, and invariably less expensive.

Roses

When it comes to roses, look for the “own-root” selections. These are plants that are grown from cuttings and do have developed their own roots, rather than being grafted on a rootstock such as “Dr. Huey.” These are often historic varieties or stable hybrids. The advantages of own-root roses over grafted roses include greater cold-hardiness, shapelier (because they do not grow from a graft), and complete absence of rootstock suckers. Mail-order sources of own-root roses include Heirloom Roses, High County Gardens, David Austin and others.

Photo of a Pink Rose Blossom

Rosa ‘Mary Rose’ by David Austin Roses

Irises

Alternatives to the tall bearded hybrids include the beardless varieties. The America Iris Society identifies many species of breadless irises, organized in several series within subsections. For an excellent overview of beardless irises, search for Ben Hager’s article, “Beardless Iris,” on the Pacific Horticulture magazine website.

One series listed by the AIS, Series Californicae, may be of particular interest to readers of this column. Most of the species in this series are referred to collectively as Pacific Coast Irises (PCIs), because they are native to and grow well in coastal habitats, like the Monterey Bay area. Right now is the ideal time to plant PCIs.

Local hybridizer, Joe Ghio, has created many new PCI cultivars and won numerous national awards for his introductions. His catalog of both tall bearded irises and PCIs is available for $3 from Bay View Gardens, 1201 Bay St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

Tulips

The several groups of hybrid tulips include Darwins, Triumphs, Fosterianas, Gregeiis, Kaufmannias, Viridifloras, and others. These groups include many hundreds of cultivars that could overwhelm the most avid collector. All produce uniquely gorgeous blossoms, require a winter dormant period for reliable bloom, and attract gophers. Alternatives to these very popular plants, especially for areas without several weeks of cold weather, are called the species tulips. These are “the little bulbs that have given rise to all the big showy hybrids.” These smaller plants are native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, or Asia Minor, and grow fine in the Monterey Bay area.

Species tulips that are good selections for the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate include Tulip sylvestris (Europe), T. bakeri “Lilac Wonder” (Crete), T. clusiana var. chrysantha and “Lady Jane” (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan), and T. saxatilis (Crete).

Most mail-order sources of tulips, daffodils and other geophytes usually also offer species tulips. Look for them in the catalogs of McClure & Zimmerman, Van Engelen, Brett & Becky’s Bulbs, John Scheepers, and others.

Gardening for the Senses

Gardeners develop and maintain ornamental gardens primarily for the visual appeal of beautiful blossoms and lush foliage. These gardens also please the sense of sight with the shapes of plants and the similarities or contrasts between plants.

Ornamental plants could also please three other of our senses:

  • Taste is served by certain plants that are both edible and ornamental, e.g., Saffron (Crocus sativus);
  • Touch is valued in plants that interesting texture, e.g., Lambs Ears (Stachys byzantina); and
  • Hearing relates to plants that rustle in the breeze, e.g., New Zealand Flax (Phormium.

There are more examples of ornamental plants that appeal to these senses, but they are minor features of the garden, relative to plants that appeal to our sense of sight.

The fifth important category of ornamental plants is the aromatic plants: those that appeal to the gardener’s sense of smell.

The blossoms or the leaves, or both, of aromatic plants, produce volatile compounds that are known as essential oils. Their primary purpose, of course is to attract pollinators, but people have found myriad culinary, medicinal, therapeutic, and even magical and uses of such plants. Books have been written about such desirable applications. Here, we focus on our enjoyment of the aesthetic appeal of aromatic plants.

Plants with aromatic foliage release their essential oils primarily during the heat of the day. When the sun goes down, the foliage must be rubbed to appreciate the fragrance.

In comparison, some aromatic flowers release their perfumes during the evening and night hours to attract moths that have evolved to reach the plant’s nectar through long corolla tubes,

Many aromatic plants produce pleasant fragrances during the daytime and can be desirable additions to the landscape. An online search for “aromatic plants” will yield the information needed to select and locate plants to optimize daytime and evening enjoyment.

For example, very popular evening-scented aromatic plants include Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), Border Phlox (Phlox paniculata), Honeysuckle (Lonicera), Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), Night-scented Phlox (Zalusianskya ovata), and Night-scented Stock (Matthiola bicornis).

The aromatic California native plants may be particularly interesting to gardeners in the Monterey Bay area. We appreciate the studies of Jackie Pascoe, a member of the California Native Plant Society, to select a few noteworthy plants in this large group.

  • Spice Bush (Calicanthus occidentalis) – wine barrel scent
  • Vanilla Grass (Hierogonum occidentalis) – vanilla scent
  • Fragrant Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia fragrans) – minty, but entirely unique scent
  • Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa) – minty scent
  • Wild Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) – orangey scent
  • Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii) – clean scent, “like a sweet desert morning”
  • Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii) – wonderfully spicy scent
  • Catalina Perfume (Ribes viburnifoium) – fine wine scent

You could find some of these aromatic plants at the California Native Plant Society’s sale on Saturday. For info, see the story elsewhere in today’s newspaper.

Another good opportunity to learn about aromatic plants is to visit the Aroma Garden at UCSC’s Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Explore the large and varied universe of aromatic plants to discover your preferences, and add a few to selected locations in your garden to expand your sensual enjoyment.

Inspiration for Next Year’s Garden

We are now one week into the fall season of the year (the autumnal equinox occurred last Friday. Now is the time to plant in preparation for the new season. In the spring, many gardeners become inspired as garden centers display flowers that have been nitrogen-dosed into bloom, but the fall is best for installing new herbaceous perennials, and woody shrubs and trees. This time is good for such tasks because the plants will have time to establish their roots during the winter months and prepare to burst into bud and bloom in the spring. As this underground growth happens, our seasonal rains (hopefully) will provide needed moisture.

Planting and transplanting involve the pursuit of landscape design visions, which makes the late spring/early fall also a fine season for touring gardens for new ideas.

The Garden Conservatory, a non-profit organization, conducts a national program of one-day garden tours, known as the Open Days program. The tours are organized in local clusters of three-to-five outstanding private gardens. The Conservatory publishes an annual catalog of Open Days events, which are scheduled from April through October.

Last weekend, I visited one of the Open Days clusters in San Jose, and volunteered as the greeter at one of the gardens. There were three gardens on tour: a garden designer’s “intensely private sanctuary” with extensive stone and cast embellishments; a design gem, once featured in Sunset magazine and recently recovered from five feet of flood waters; and an artist’s nicely designed and well-managed collection of palms, cycads, bromeliads, ferns and succulents.

I won’t attempt to describe these gardens in more detail. The direct experience is always best. These three gardens are not larger than standard city lots, and they each presented details that most gardeners could adapt for their own landscapes. They also have interesting and well-grown plants, one of which (shown below) I could not identify:

Photo of Unknown Plant in Container

Mystery Plant

This striking plant was in the designer’s garden, but he was not present when I visited. The flower resembles that of the Firecracker Plant (Cuphea ignea), but the leaves are quite different. I’m searching for its name.

Several design details caught my attention. I particularly liked the use of small black river stones (Mexican pebbles), which are available in several sizes. These can be used loosely as a stone mulch, placed in sand or concrete as decorative pavement, or in other ways as imagination might lead.

Another design detail of interest was the use of small Christmas light strings, woven into hanging metal pieces, e.g., chandelier, empty birdcage, etc. and serving a decorative lighting under a patio roof. Not everyone has a similar situation, but the effect would be attractive in the evening.

Thirdly, I was impressed by the use of very large carved stone, natural stone, and cast concrete pieces in a relatively small landscaped environment. Placing massive blocks requires bold commitment as well as physical effort, but such pieces express permanence with great clarity. Even a single specimen could be a strong addition to a garden, and a vote against more tentative actions.

Visit the Garden Conservatory’s Open Days website < www.gardenconservancy.org/open-days > for more information.

If you are ready to add plants to your garden, a good opportunity is the 5th Annual Native Plant Sale of the Watsonville Wetlands Watch. The sale will be 8:30–1:00 on Saturday, October 7th, at the organization’s resource center at the Pajaro Valley High School campus in Watsonville. The sale supports the group’s education and restoration programs in the Pajaro Valley. For info, visit www.watsonvillewetlandswatch.org/.

Grasses & Sedges in the Landscape

Gardening with flowering plants usually involves focuses on broad-leafed plants, which comprise the very large class of dicotyledons (“dicots”). In this column, we consider the monocotyledons (“monocots”), which include three families of narrow-leafed plants: grasses, sedges, and rushes. Dicots and monocots have several differences; most importantly, dicots have two embryonic leaves in each seed, while monocots have one.

Cultivation of these two classes of flowering plants has pretty much the same general requirements, plus the usual variations of specific plants. The narrow-leafed monocots, however, bring a distinctive form to the landscape and are also valued for such qualities as a gentle movement, drought tolerance, and low maintenance.

We might think of all garden-quality monocots as ornamental grasses, but grasses, sedges, and rushes each have unique shapes, which are described in a familiar rhyme: “Sedges have edges/Rushes are round/Grasses are hollow/What have you found?”

Gardeners can use ornamental grasses in several ways in the landscape. An excellent resource about many specific kinds of grasse and their uses is the exceptional book, The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn (Timber Press, 2009). Grass expert John Greenlee wrote this book, and garden photographer Saxon Holt provided excellent images. Their collaboration builds on their previous impressive works: Greenlee’s The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses (with photography by Derek Fell) (1992) and Holt’s contributions to Nancy J. Ondra’s Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design (2002).

The sub-title of The American Meadow Garden emphasizes lawn grasses, but the book actually explores a variety of landscape uses of grasses: groundcovers, fillers, backgrounds, accents and natural lawns. Several grass varieties can be used in more than one of these ways.

Even a cursory scan of this book reveals an impressive range of garden-worthy grasses and their distinctive appearances. The garden designer is well advised to begin with a particular landscaping goal and then to look for grasses for optional approaches to meeting the goal.

My own current project, the development of a fairly large bed of Mediterranean basin plants, includes an interest in moving several existing sedge plants from another part of the garden. The plant is a European native, Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa). Interestingly, this plant had been — and might still be — sold as a California native plant called Berkeley Sedge or Foothill Sedge (C. tumulicola). It was correctly identified as C. divulsa in 2005.

Photo of Grey Sedge

Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa), often sold by the incorrect name, ‘Berkeley Sedge”

By any name, Greenlee calls this plant “by far one of the most versatile and manageable of all the groundcover sedges.” It grows twelve-to-eighteen inches high, and up to thirty-six inches wide, and is evergreen in the Monterey Bay area. It tolerates clay or sand and dry or moist conditions, and competes well with tree roots. It grows well in sun but prefers light shade. It’s true workhorse in the garden, and by most accounts attractive either as a single tussock or in larger areas.

This plant naturalizes easily to the point that some plant people consider it to be invasive. Unwanted seedlings can be removed easily enough, but gardeners should be aware of this plant’s ability to spread.

Grey Sedge will work well in the lightly shaded portion of my Mediterranean basin bed. I will plant divisions of the existing clumps about eighteen inches apart, and expect them to spread to form an interesting smallish meadow.

My specimens of Grey Sedge had been imposters in my California native bed, so their removal from that bed creates an opportunity to replace them with California native grasses. There are good options for accents and ground covers, to be explored in another column.

Discovering Gladioli

My garden includes several gladioli. I do not recall planting even one of these plants, but there they are, almost always in the wrong places. They have popped up, for example, in the middle of the rose bed, and on the edge of the entry path to my front door.

One definition of weeds is “plants that grow where they are not wanted,” but these plants have attractive blossoms. In fact, the sword lily—as it is sometimes called—is among the most desirable plants for cut flowers. The blossoms are available in many different colors.

Now that their blossoms have faded and the stalks are drying out, it’s the right time to corral their spread and get them growing in better places. This calls for some research.

The genus Gladiolus is a member of the iris family (Iridaceae), including about 300 species, the large majority of which are natives of South Africa. The species range in height from 1.5 feet (G. tristis) to 3 feet (G. callianthus, the Abyssinian Sword Lily) to 6 feet (the common grandiflora hybrids).

Gladiolus byzanthus By Meneerke bloem

Gladiolus byzanthus
By Meneerke bloem

The 5.5 feet plants that have appeared are probably garden hybrids and are best placed in the middle or back of the bed.

Once the plant’s blossoms have turned brown, the stems should be cut below the lowest flower to discourage the plant from setting unwanted seeds. In the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate the corms can be left in place, or dug for planting in a different location. My garden is organized geographically, so I will replant the corms in the South African bed.

Once dug, the corms can be grouped in three categories: old, large corms are viable but lack vigor; younger corms at least .75 inches in diameter will produce blossoms in the spring; and cormlets about the size of peas can be planted to produce blossoms after a year of development.

Corms may be stored in a cool, dry, dark and well-ventilated place until replanting in the following year from January to March. After planting they will bloom reliably in 80–to–100 days, depending on the variety. This invites succession planting about 1 or 2 weeks apart to yield a series of blooms for cutting or enjoying in the garden.

The corms should be planted where they will get rich soil, full sun, and good drainage. They should be planted about 4 inches deep and about 6 inches apart. Apply an organic, water-soluble fertilizer when the plants are 10 inches tall, and again when the flower spikes begin to show color.

As the plants grow, they might require staking, either with individual stakes or a grid made of stakes and string (but almost none one of the several volunteers in my garden has flopped).

As sometimes happens, plants that introduce themselves unexpectedly in the garden can be appreciated and welcome. So far, I am glad to discover gladioli and looking ahead to a fine display in the spring and summer of next year. I might even become interested in buying corms of different species and different colors.

For information about gladiolus varieties and cultivation of these plants, visit the website of the North American Gladiolus Council.

Plant Bulbs Now for Spring Bloom

One of the pleasures of gardening is the spring display of blossoms from hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other bulbous plants. These plants are unique and delightful harbingers of the end of winter, the imminent arrival of the warmer days of spring, the bursting buds of many plants, and many other aspects of life’s cycle.

With careful observation, we can also witness the offspring of birds, insects and—depending on where you live and where you wander— the beasts of the field and the forest.

We can set our digital calendars or timepieces to ensure that we enjoy the magical gift that we receive each spring, but a gardening strategy for marking the occasion is equally reliable, more natural and definitely more satisfying.

This gardening strategy imposes certain obligations on the gardener, mostly involving timely action. In particular, this means planting spring bulbs in the early fall, and that requires planning just about now.

If you are a past mail-order customer of spring bulbs, you should find a catalog or two in your mail soon. You might have already received such timely prompts. Take the time to look through the pages to imagine those blossoms in your garden in the spring, make your choices and order the bulbs right away, while you most likely to secure the selections you prefer.

If you are already a regular cultivator of spring bulbs you will have many ideas to consider. If you would like inspiration, the American Gardening Association has listed “The Top 50 Most Popular Spring Blooming Bulbs.” Find this list at the NGA website, garden.org.

If you particularly like tulips, which are available in a mind-boggling range of colors and forms. Plan to order your selected bulbs early enough to chill them for eight-to-ten weeks in vented paper bags in a refrigerator. Do not store fruit in the refrigerator at the same time, because ripening fruits (especially apples) releases ethylene gas that will damage the bulbs. In November or early December, move them directly from the refrigerator to a sunny planting site.

Alternatively, look for a supplier that offers pre-chilled bulbs and well send them to you at planting time. This is a convenient option but generally is available only with a limited selection of bulbs. You still need to order early.

There are a few wild tulips that are readily available and do not require chilling. They typically their blossoms are not as large and showy as those of the hybrid varieties, but they are nevertheless quite charming additions to the garden. Look for Tulip bakeri (native to Crete), T. clusiana (Middle East), T. saxatillis (Crete), T. sylvestris (Europe, Asia Minor), and T. tarda (Central Asia). One mail-order source of wild tulips is McClure & Zimmerman.

Many other spring-blooming bulbs do not require such chilling. The most popular of these are the daffodils, which include a wonderful range of hybrid colors and forms. Daffodils are fine choices for the Monterey Bar area because they will propagate easily with minimal care, and provide a growing annual display in your garden.

Plant your spring-blooming bulbs in a sunny location, with the top about three times as deep as the diameter of the bulb.

Spring-blooming bulbs are not expensive, so consider the purchase of enough bulbs to provide a dramatic display in the spring. Plant them in informal clusters either among other garden plants or in an open area.

The tried-and-true bulbs are always a good choice, but also consider bringing some of the less familiar plants to your garden. As you gain experience with spring-blooming bulbs, you can plant varieties that bloom in the early, middle or late season for a longer display, or color groupings that delight the eye, or container plantings that can be placed prominently when at their prime and moved later out of the way as they fade.

Start now to plan your display of spring-blooming bulbs!

Growing Tomatoes

If you are thinking of growing tomatoes this year, you have joined with many (millions?) of gardeners who have made tomatoes the most popular edible plant for home gardens.

There are many reasons for this popularity:

  • Tomatoes are good for your diet. They are very good sources of flavonoids and desirable phytochemicals, and have anti-carcinogenic properties.
  • Organically grown tomatoes (which the home gardener can ensure) are more nutritious. They might be smaller than conventionally grown tomatoes (not important) but they offer more vitamin C and phenolic content.
  • Home grown tomatoes often have flavor that is superior to commercial varieties.
  • Growing your own tomatoes also provides access to a wide range of heirloom varieties.
  • Tomatoes are exceptionally versatile in the diet and in the kitchen.
  • They quite possibly the easiest edible plant to grow (along with garlic).

Assuming you are inspired to try growing tomatoes in your garden, the first step, as usual, is plant selection. There are thousands of varieties to choose from. Many will thrive in the moderate climate of the Monterey Bay area, but here’s a short list of recommendation compiled by organic gardening expert Barbara Pleasant.

These selections are for the Pacific Northwest. Plant recommendations often are for the Pacific Northwest or the Southwest, leaving central coastal California somewhere in the middle, but the Monterey Bay area seems closest to the Pacific Northwest in terms of seasonal temperatures and sun exposure.

Slicer Tomatoes:  ‘Early Girl’, ‘Beefsteak’, and ‘Stupice’, followed by ‘Big Beef’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, and ‘Willamette’.

Cherry Tomatoes: ‘Super Sweet 100’, ‘Sungold’, and ‘Sweet Million’, followed by ‘Black Cherry’ and ‘Gold Nugget’.

Paste/Canning: ‘Roma’, ‘San Marzano’,  ‘Amish Paste’, followed by  ‘Viva Italia’ and ‘Principe Borghese’.

Really Big Ones: ‘Brandywine’, ‘Beefsteak’,  ‘Mortgage Lifter’, followed by  ‘Early Girl,’ ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Goliath,’ and ‘Hillbilly’.

Saladette/Pear: ‘Yellow Pear’,  ‘Stupice’, ‘Glacier’, then ‘Juliet’, and ‘Principe Borghese’.

Here are tips for growing a bounty of tasty tomatoes.

  • Plant seedlings that you buy or grow yourself because transplants grow best.
  • Plant in full sun about two feet apart, to provide access and airflow between plants.
  • Provide good nutrients by adding compost to the soil, plus organic fertilizers, including sulfur and crushed eggshells.
  • Pinch the lower leaves from the seedling and buy the stem so that the lowest leaves are just above the soil. Roots will grow from the leaf nodes so deep planting adds stability to the plant.
  • Water for a couple days, then two inches of water per week. (Some people claim that withholding water after fruit set adds to the flavo of the fruit00r. Dry farming tomatoes in this way is most successful after ample winter rains…like this year!)
  • As the plant grows, prune the smaller shoots, leaving four or five main branches. Support the plant with stakes or a tomato cage to keep the fruit off the ground and make harvesting easier.

This would be a good year to add to your tomato-growing experience and pleasure.

Your local garden center or grocery store might well have good seeds or seedlings for your garden. You could also explore these sources:

  • Tomato Fest: A Mendocino County grower of heirloom tomatoes
  • Love Apple Farm: Great varieties for sale at Ivy’s Porch, 5311 Scotts Valley Drive, Scotts Valley (to June 4), and San Francisco Flower & Garden Show (April 5-9)
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Mail order sources for seeds of tomatoes and many other edibles.

Enjoy growing tomatoes in your garden— and eating them anywhere.