San Diego grower Tom Chino holds a lug of his prized crops.
Lessons from the masters
The Chino family has been growing tomatoes near San Diego for decades and sells only directly to consumers and to a few choice (and choosy) restaurants. They grow scores of varieties through the year, all vine-ripened to perfection.
The Chinos find that indeterminate tomatoes (ones that grow and keep fruiting until stopped by frost or disease) are generally better flavored than determinate types, which come to harvest on smaller plants all at once. Virtually all the tomatoes listed in this article are indeterminate, but you'll encounter both determinate and indeterminate tomatoes in seed catalogs.
The Chino system for growing tomatoes
• Prepare the soil by tilling 3 inches of well-aged manure into the top 6 inches of soil.
• Plant seedlings in succession at three-week intervals from February through July. Cover earliest plants with sheet plastic stretched over hoops to boost warmth early in the season and prevent frost damage. Remove hoops after night temperatures stay above 50° to 55°.
• Train indeterminate tomatoes up a trellis system (determinate varieties are best raised in cages). The trellis system keeps ripe fruit off the ground, so it's less susceptible to disease and is easier to harvest. The basic structure is made from 8-foot steel stakes pounded 18 inches into the ground at 4-foot intervals. Horizontal wires fastened to the stakes at 1-foot intervals give the tomato vines support as they grow; polypropylene string secures vines.
• Harvest as soon as tomatoes color up fully. Look for green gel around the seeds. Once it turns clear, the tomato is overripe and flavor diminishes. Pick often: The Chinos harvest at least every other day. Cold degrades tomato flavor, so tear the plants out after nighttime temperatures start dropping below the mid 40s. (This is also a good argument for storing tomatoes on a kitchen counter instead of in your refrigerator's crisper).
• Rotate your crops. This is the best crop insurance you can have, since many diseases survive in the soil, waiting for you to replant susceptible crops.