Why do I Try to Grow Tomatoes in Virginia



It’s a steamy August here in the mid Atlantic, and the garden is still plugging along. Some great production and some not so great — the cucumbers are slowing down, the onions were tiny, the garlic harvest was great, and the peppers have flourished.

The tomatoes… well, they’re hanging in there! I try to grow them every year, but I’ve had hit or miss luck with the tomatoes since we’ve moved to the Shenandoah Valley.

This year I didn’t make time to start my own due to other commitments, so I purchased from a favorite supplier, Gabalot Gardens in Strasburg. I tried three varieties:

  1. Mortgage Lifter — This well-loved tomato did not like my garden soil. The plants grew, but the fruit never reached that great size you’d expect from a Mortgage Lifter. Combine that with the blight that lives in our garden, and their spindly remains are the first plants slated to come out.
  2. Goliath — These have done pretty well, with good production and good flavor. They are the perfect size for a hamburger or a BLT. They have some blight, but they are still producing.
  3. San Marzano II — I’m an Amish Paste gal when I grow from seed, but I’ve been happy with the production and flavor of the San Marzanos. They are a beautiful red when ripe, very firm, and have a really nice tomato flavor. Other than some blossom-end rot (thanks to uneven watering) and stink-bug bites, I’m delighted with these tomatoes. I’m currently popping most of them in the freezer so that I can pull them out some chilly Autumn Saturday and slow-cook a nice sauce to can. A few of these ended up in salsa and the rest make it into salads. We are still getting a good yield, even though the heat is slowing production and the blight is quickly making its way up the plants.

As a VCE Master Gardener Volunteer, I’ve seen many different tomato issues come in to our help desks, from a greenhouse fungus to hollow stems. If you read Virginia Cooperative Extension’s publication on tomatoes, you might wonder why anyone in Virginia would bother trying to growing them! Just a few issues I see here in the mountains:

frosty green tomatoes

frosty green tomatoes

Short Growing Season – Most gardeners I know here don’t put tomatoes in the ground until Memorial Day (and hold peppers and basil until after June 1). That means a relatively short growing season considering we often see frost in September, especially in the little cold pocket on our ridge here in the holler.

Clay soil – To those of you gifted with lovely loam, trust me when I say clay soil is a blessing and a curse. It’s pretty fertile, but it dries hard as a rock, crusts over (causing water to pool on the surface instead of percolating through), and it splashes up on the leaves of the tomatoes, clinging there, leading to blights, wilts, and other issues.

Humidity – Out west, it’s a dry heat. Here in the mid Atlantic, it’s a wet heat. Soupy, shimmery, heavy — the humidity just descends on the area. If I garden at any time other than early morning, I’m sweaty within minutes. High humidity can contribute to some of the blight issues I’ve mentioned.

Heat – Even when the humidity is low, August is full of wonderfully hot days. Tomatoes don’t like to flower, fruit, or ripen on very hot days, and this August has had its share of 90+ days. We are a little cooler here at our 1,300+ feet elevation, but not enough for the tomatoes to behave.

Lack of Rain – We are in a unique little spot in the Valley. Rain will approach from the west or northwest, but it breaks up over the Allegheny Mountains, and while we see it and often hear it, it doesn’t get close to our property. Oddly enough, even when it comes up from the south or east, it often avoids us completely. A few weeks ago I was in Woodstock watching the rain pouring down. As I drove home after it stopped, I was delighted to see little puddles in driveways for 10 miles. As I got within a mile of our home… nothing. The gravel road kicked up dry dust as I drove, and I spent the next hour watering the gardens.

Blights – Blight is a pretty good general answer to tomato problems out here: “it’s some sort of blight.” Between wilts and blights, tomatoes have an uphill battle. Torrential downpours, when they come, cause the contaminated soil to splash onto the lower leaves of tomatoes. Once a plant is infected, you can hold it at bay by cutting off the infected stems, but the plant is generally doomed. I cut off so many leaves that my tomatoes begin to look like they are espaliered. Late blight is my problem, and while it’s a nuisance and makes the garden ugly, it holds off long enough that I’m usually able to get enough tomatoes to make me happy.

Critters – Ah, the critters. A friend’s tomatoes were decimated this year by deer, which took one bite from each fruit before moving on to another. Birds, squirrels, and groundhogs are also well known for sampling a few bites from each tomato, normally right as they ripen. I’ve shared my battles with tomato & tobacco hornworms. Luckily the bunnies in my garden keep to the fallen fruit (though they’ve enjoyed my beans and carrots).

yellow striped armyworm

yellow striped armyworm

This year we have a new critter attacking our plants. Fortunately they are slow eaters, but unfortunately they are happy to burrow holes into the fruit. The yellow striped armyworm has made its appearance. I’ve never noticed them before, but this year I’ve picked off more than 50 of the little devils. (By the way. If you need help IDing an insect pest in your vegetable garden, try this guide. It’s great!) With only 24 plants, hand picking is easy enough. Neem oil is always a lower-environmental-impact option, as well.

So why grow tomatoes at all?

The flavor — There is nothing like a summer tomato. I know, you can get tomatoes all year nowadays, but I decided long ago they are only worth eating in the summer. A supermarket tomato, at least where I live, is mealy, tasteless, and dry. Summer tomatoes are meaty, juicy, and delicious. Weekly BLTs are a summer staple. The flavor of home-canned (jarred) tomatoes has none of the tinniness you find in metal-canned tomatoes. It’s worth the time to core, peel, crush, slow cook, and can.

The beauty — Tomato plants are a pleasure to handle, twisting bright red fruit from the emerald green vines. Every few days I pinch suckers (at least at the beginning of the season), and I twist the plants around the twine that supports them. I look them over for bugs, caterpillars, or disease. If you wonder where the phrase “green thumb” originated, spend some time working with tomatoes. After I tend to all 24, every finger on my right hand is tinged with green!

The challenge — Ok, I’m a glutton for punishment, but I enjoy the work! Each year I learn a little something else from experiments. Which mulches work the best, and which don’t work at all? (This year? No mulch and flame weeding — kept the weeds at bay, but didn’t help with the blight.) Which support system is worth the effort and cost? Which varieties produce the best tasting and prolific yields?

I remember my Dad working to grow tomatoes as he trained them on homemade wire cages. His dad grew them in a small garden next to his driveway. My other granddad grew them in a small garden “out back” and would eat a ripe fruit right off of the vine. I’ve grown tomatoes almost every year I’ve gardened, from patio plants in Fairfax City to dozens of plants in Appomattox and Mount Jackson. It’s worth it to me to connect with my family of the past while growing something delicious for my family of the present.

Why do you grow tomatoes? What’s your favorite variety and why?


*** This site is comprised solely of the opinions of its author, Stacey Morgan Smith. She works to promote gardening and tourism in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, from Roanoke to the Potomac River.***

4 comments to Why do I Try to Grow Tomatoes in Virginia

  • Athanasia

    Your growing season sounds pretty much like ours. Memorial Day weekend is traditional for anything like seedlings, vegetable or annuals. We do not have clay soil. We have very good soil which is probably why my ancestors chose the area.

    As for tomatoes, we like Early Girl, Wisconsin 55, Amish paste, Sweet 100, Mountain Fresh, Celebrity, for some of the mainline breeds. As far as the heirloom or more unusual my oldest girl would know better. We farm together and she does the vegetable gardens.

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