There isn’t very much I don’t absolutely love about living in San Francisco. But sometimes around this time of year, when the weather is heating up in my Oakland office, when I drive to a project in Lafayette or Walnut Creek, when I visit friends and family down the peninsula or up in wine country, I miss hot summer days. I miss nighttime swimming. I miss driving or biking to ice cream in short sleeves. I think what I miss the most is vine-ripened, sun-warmed tomatoes. They are the taste of summer, and I haven’t grown them since I moved to San Francisco over fifteen years ago. That’s about to change.
There are many obstacles when it comes to growing tomatoes in San Francisco. My little postage stamp garden is ripe with challenges in growing a great tomato, but I’m tired of waiting or begging my folks in warmer climes for their castoffs. I need tomatoes and I need them now! The first, most obvious challenge is the San Francisco “summer.” Local tomatoes are like a properly layered tourist in June – pretty scarce. I bet folks in San Francisco’s “banana belt”: Mission or Bernal Hill and maybe Potrero can pull off some tasty tomatoes, but my little garden sits pretty much at the opening of the fog-machine we call the Pacific Ocean.
My second problem is that, while my soil is loamy luscious goodness in texture, it is also laced with lead… We’re not eating anything that comes from this soil. I’ll be growing tomatoes and herbs in containers, thank you very much. A couple of years ago, my backyard neighbor tried to use one of those topsy turvy numbers, which seems like a good idea until you remember that the fog machine is fueled my pretty obnoxious winds. My heart went out to him while I was cracking up watching him try to wrestle the spinning plant with leaves flying off. That experiment lasted about five days. Sometimes I wonder if Ginsberg was referencing the wind when “Howl” was published.
My third problem with growing tomatoes was mentioned with my first problem. I call my garden my postage stamp garden. And while my little garden south facing, I have a pine tree looming, threatening to eat up what little sun I get.
But I have to try! Some of my favorite things about gardening are the trial and error; the survival of the fittest; and the surprise success stories. I’m going to dedicate tomato space next to my Meyer Lemon – the sunniest part of the garden. And I’m going to plant them in my faux bois (funky concrete) tree for added whimsy – because I can’t grow actual cherries either. I might as well pull something off a tree!
Many have tried growing tomatoes in San Francisco before me, so I’m going with some tried and true varieties, “Early Girl,” and “Black Krim.” I’m pretty late to the scion game (all due to my denial about not growing tomatoes I’m sure) but I’m going to try a grafted tomato this year as well. If you haven’t heard about tomato grafting – it’s the same science used on woodier plants like fruit trees. Commercial farmers graft many different varieties of vegetable plants. The idea is that more tender, tasty, productive and/or disease prone plants are grafted onto hardier stock that will ideally produce better fruit. I’m a little skeptical, but what the heck? I want to find the perfect tomato for my garden and my life!
I’ll be back with an update in August or September. Fingers crossed!