Advice to grow by: Sonoma County master gardeners

Jane T. asks: I want to grow lots of tomatoes this year. When can I start planting them and which ones are the best to grow in Sonoma?

Answer: It’s just about time to put tomatoes in our Sonoma County gardens. It may be confusing to know exactly when to plant tomatoes in our county due to the many different microclimates here. The northern cities of Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa, as well as western Sonoma, warm up much earlier than the cooler areas of Sebastopol, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Petaluma.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Wait until after April 15 — on average, it’s the last day with frost — to plant tomatoes. Warm soil is key. Use a spot in your garden that gets six to eight hours of full sun. Then follow these steps to plant tomatoes for a delicious Caprese salad or salsa fresca this summer:

1. Dig a hole deep enough to bury all but the top 3 inches of plant foliage.

Before planting, fill the hole with water and add compost. You also may add a well-balanced organic fertilizer, labeled “7-5-7.” Those numbers refer to the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium content of the fertilizer. Directions on the package will tell you how much fertilizer to use per plant.

2. Gently place the seedling in the hole, fill in with soil and press firmly around each plant to make a slight depression to hold water. Water the soil thoroughly to settle the soil and eliminate any air pockets around the roots.

3. Pinch off any lower leaves that are near the soil and add support just after planting by staking, caging or trellising each plant. Plant parts that trail on the ground are more likely to get diseased and attract pests.

4. Place determinate tomato plants 18 to 24 inches apart; plant indeterminate tomatoes 24 to 36 inches apart.

5. Add 1 to 2 inches of mulch around the tomato plants to help retain soil moisture, keep the roots warm and reduce weed growth.

Tomatoes require regular watering. Keep the soil evenly moist and avoid spraying the leaves. For watering by hand, water once or twice a week. First, check for moisture with your finger. If the soil feels damp 2 to 3 inches deep, there is no need to water.

You may want to add beneficial plants, such as marigolds, basil, borage, chives and parsley. Not only do they attract pollinators to your garden — bee-pollinated tomatoes have higher levels of vitamin C — they also become tasty treats alongside your summertime tomato dishes.

When deciding which is the right tomato variety for your climate and your planting area, it helps to know the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

Determinate tomatoes grow to approximately 3 to 5 feet, bear most of their fruit within four to six weeks and then decline. They are wonderful for large pots or grow bags. Determinate tomatoes are usually early ripening and used for canning. Some determinate tomato varieties that grow well in Sonoma County are Sophie’s Choice, Glacier and Roma.

Indeterminate tomato plants bear tomatoes throughout the summer, until the vine is cut down or killed by frost in the fall. Indeterminate tomato varieties that grow well in Sonoma County include Stupice, Early Girl, New Girl, Crimson Carmelo, HillBilly, Green Giant and Sungold cherry tomatoes.

For more in-depth information on growing tomatoes in Sonoma County, register to join our “Veggie Happenings Zoom Talk” at 12:30 - 1:30 p.m. on April 13 at To read more about planting tomatoes in containers, irrigation and pollination, check out How Tomatoes are Pollinated at

Lisa N. asks: I planted a western redbud tree in a good location six to eight months ago, yet it is barely more than a stick. I am surprised that it has not grown more in this time. What can I do?

Answer: Although the western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is not a notoriously slow grower, “barely a stick” planted about six to eight months ago isn’t particularly surprising for a new plant.

Some native plants do take a while to get going. Check for gophers or any other pest that might chew on roots. Redbuds are very drought-tolerant and like well-drained soil; do not water them excessively. Redbuds need winter chill to set flowers. This is a plant worth waiting on!

Be patient and wait a few more months to see if there’s any sign of new growth. If it hasn’t grown, carefully dig it out and check the roots and surrounding area. If the roots look succulent, white or tan and like they are growing, replant it. If the roots look brown or black, soft or rotted or smell foul, your tree is probably diseased and should be discarded or replaced.

Things to Do in the Garden Now

Plant summer bulbs such as gladiolus, dahlia, callas, amaryllis and lilies. Spring-planted bulbs produce some of the most dramatic garden color with minimal effort.

Inspect your irrigation system for cracks, leaks and clogs. Flush out drip systems and make sure all emitters are working. Replace batteries on battery-operated controllers and irrigation timers. Ensure timers are working. Do this now and you will be ready when your plants need water.

Useful links

Food Gardening Articles:

Bulbs for Sonoma County:

Drip Irrigation:

City of Santa Rosa Watering Recommendations:

Contributors to this week’s column were Renee Hayes and Debbie Westrick.

The UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County ( provides environmentally sustainable, science-based horticultural information to Sonoma County home gardeners. Send your gardening questions to The Master Gardeners will answer in the newspaper only questions selected for this column. Other questions may be directed to their Information Desk: 707-565-2608 or

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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