The Journey to Growing San Marzano Tomatoes in a Balcony

Ten months ago, I moved to Seattle from Berkeley, California. During last year’s pandemic, I picked up, like many others, on gardening. I was very impressed by how easily and quickly tomato plants grow. By the end of last season, I had bought seeds of my favorite kind, San Marzano, and I was excited to plant them. However, when I moved to Seattle, I downsized considerably in space, and suddenly I had to get creative with my gardening. Another challenge was the weather. I didn’t know when it was going to stop raining and become appropriate for tomatoes to grow. Today, despite all the mistakes I made, I’m harvesting many of these delicious sauce ingredients. It was quite a journey.

My baby San Marzano plants just moved to their final home.

I planted the seeds the first week of February. In hindsight, this was way too early because the plants were quite large after a few months. April was still showing nearly freezing temperatures, but my plants were ready to go out.

I went to my favorite nursery in Seattle and got two pots of a size I believed was appropriate for grown tomato plants and two 5 foot long wooden stakes to support them. I intended to keep both plants as a single leader. I transplanted my plants to their final home with their support.

Initially, I saw the plants develop quite large sun leaves, and they were bushy. So I took my plants outdoors by the end of April, and soon I learned a lesson about planting in balconies: it’s much windier than at ground level. So I had to secure them, making it harder for me to move them around to optimize the sunlight.

Despite these challenges, the plants kept growing happily, and by mid-May, I began seeing my first tomatoes grow. I saw the larger leaves wilt, and as I pruned the plants, they developed much smaller leaves. At this point, I believed the sun was drying out the soil in the pots, so I added some mulch, but this kept happening. I can only guess that the sunlight was too intense compared to the grow light I used the first months, and the plants decided they needed smaller sun leaves.

This was the first tomato to grow.

The plants grew many flower pods that didn’t bear any fruit. I then realized that since I was on the 6th floor, there were not many pollinizers, so I gently began shaking the flowers to help them pollinate. This action helped with fruit production.

Last year I didn’t get the chance to learn how large tomato plants could get. Instead, I was unfortunate enough to get infrequent visits of a deer that consistently snacked on my tomato plants. So this year, I learned that, as a variety of indeterminate tomatoes, San Marzanos grow to over 7 feet tall. Much more than the humble 5 feet long support stick I got them. They were growing taller than the support stake, which didn’t seem to be a problem until late July, when the plants got very productive. The few leader branches I had allowed to grow unsupported began hunching and bending until one windy day when some snapped. Lesson learned, do not leave tomato plants half-supported.

Here you can see the plants that outgrown their stakes

To salvage this, I carefully cut the snapped branches and dipped them in a bit of honey to prevent infections. Then I placed them in vases with water. Some of them even developed a root system!

Speaking of deer, one thing that excited me about planting on the sixth floor was the feeling of safety. No animals would come and munch on my plants anymore! Wrong! Where some plants are out of reach for the deer, you will see crows feasting. And so, I learned that crows love tomatoes too! Seeing them poke with their beaks on ripe fruit to eat the seeds it’s pretty frustrating. Even if you’re planting on a balcony, you will not be animal-free!

These plants kept surprising me with how resistant they are. They survived an early planting, a few sub-freezing days, a 100ºF+ heatwave (that I thought killed them), inadequate support in a windy situation, and crows. Unfortunately, the final mistake I made was to pick the wrong container size. I can tell they’re root bound, but it’s simply too late to move them around. As annuals, they only have one or maybe two more months of useful life before they die.

What will I do differently next year? First, plant the seeds by mid-march instead of early February. Second, find a larger container, maybe one with a heavy base meant for a tree so the wind can’t knock it down so quickly, and finally get 6 or 7 feet long stakes to support the plants as they grow. Additionally, as I trimmed the suckers, I had the opportunity to propagate them for additional yield. I propagated and planted just one in the same pot as a basil plant, and even as a cutting, it decided to grow a tomato. I was in awe the moment I noticed the small fruit!

At this point, I would like to know if you, as a reader, have any advice to give for next year’s tomato harvest. Please let me know in the comments section below.

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