Pick a tomato that suits your taste buds, Isle climate
By Ann Tanaka and Jayme Grzebik
Can you grow tomatoes in Hawai'i? Certainly, but it does take a bit of time and patience. Some tomatoes can take more than 90 days from the time they are transplanted to when ripe fruit are harvested, not to mention the potential setbacks caused by insects and diseases that you may encounter along the way.
These days, you can find interesting and flavorful tomatoes offered at farmers markets and specialty stores if you'd rather not grow your own. But growing your own means you can select from hundreds of varieties to not only suit your personal palate but also your unique garden conditions, and the flavor of a sun-kissed ripe tomato fresh off the vine is unbeatable.
After choosing a location in full sun and amending the soil with manure and compost, it is important to understand how to avoid disease and insect challenges. Many tomato diseases are spread by insects such as aphids, thrips and white flies, which are common in Hawai'i.
Planting companion plants can help to reduce insect damage by diversifying the plants in the area and by attracting beneficial insects. Fennel, dill, cilantro (Chinese parsley) and basil are all good herbs to attract beneficial insects. Planting onions and sage is also recommended.
Tomatoes are also susceptible to damage from nematodes, a common soil pest in Hawai'i. Solutions include using lots of good-quality compost; incorporating nematode-repelling plants such as French marigolds, mustard and sesame into your soil before planting; or avoiding native soil altogether by growing in containers or hydroponically. Varieties labeled with "N" and "F" are tolerant of nematodes and fusarium wilt, both potential tomato problems.
Pick a variety that will not only please your tastebuds, but will tolerate Hawai'i's disease pressures and climate. Some varieties that certified master gardeners in Hawai'i have tried and like are Sungold, Momotaro, Odoriko, Lucky Cross, Black Cherry, Cherokee Green, Black Krim, Red Brandywine and Cherokee Purple.
These varieties may be available at sources such as Fukuda Seed Store, Kitazawa Seed Co., Victory Seeds, Sand Hill Preservation Center, Tomato Grower's Supply and Johnny's Selected Seeds. Of the University of Hawai'i seeds, UH Komohana is a favorite of some master gardeners.
Tomato seeds are easy to sprout, and sprouts are very forgiving if you break a few roots when transplanting.
Tomatoes like lots of sun, water, nutrients and air circulation to stay healthy and productive.
In addition to the standard fertilizer components — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — make sure your growing media contains adequate micronutrients such as calcium and magnesium.
Vining types can grow taller than 7 feet, so they will need a sturdy cage or other type of support. Birds such bulbuls may attack the fruit as soon as it blushes, so you may need to use bird netting or other deterrents if you don't want to share your harvest.
The University of Hawai'i offers free publications on tomatoes at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Web site; go to www.ctahr.hawaii.edu and search "tomato."
Tomato-growing classes for home gardeners taught by certified master gardeners and UH researchers will be offered at 9 and 10:30 a.m. today at the UH Urban Garden Center at Pearl City, where folks can also visit a tomato patch and a variety of other gardens from 9 a.m. until noon. Open registration is available at the classroom door for tomato classes; a $5 donation will be accepted at the door.
More information about gardening events at the Urban Garden Center can be found at www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/ougc.