Tomato-planting time

Now’s the time to plant tomato seedlings for summer harvest

Nancy Heinzel, the “tomato queen,” and Brian Marshall, owners of Sawmill Creek Farms.

Nancy Heinzel, the “tomato queen,” and Brian Marshall, owners of Sawmill Creek Farms.

Photo By Jennifer Jewell

Tomatoes and then some: Sawmill Creek Farms’ plants and produce are available at the Thursday Night Market in downtown Chico. For a full list of vegetable starts available at Sawmill Creek Farms, go to Call 877-5734 for more info.
Jennifer Jewell is the host of Northstate Public Radio’s weekly gardening program In a North State Garden.

“Follow her, she’s the tomato queen!” said Brian Marshall of his wife, Nancy Heinzel, who was leading a small group of customers into the depths of a greenhouse filled with row upon row of tomato plants, their fresh green leaves hinting at the scent of the garden-fresh, vitamin-rich tomatoes that will fill the plants come summer.

The couple own Sawmill Creek Farms, a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm known locally for the variety and quality of its tomato offerings. Heinzel held in her hand the list of varieties available from the farm this spring. They range from heirlooms (such as the circa-1935 Burpee Globe) to the unusual (such as a green cherry tomato called Green Doctors) to the common and reliable types, such as Roma and Early Girl. The upward of 3,600 young tomato plants—or “starts”—that began from seed in the cool, short days of January, were strong and stocky, with thick stems and lush foliage.

Heinzel describes tomatoes with language akin to how others describe fine wines. “For a hot day, go with a refreshing yellow or light pink variety, sliced and with olive oil, on a sandwich or in a salad,” she offered. “With a warm evening glass of wine, you want something more robust, deeper—a Japanese Oxheart, Black Prince or Cherokee Purple.”

Marshall noted that Heinzel’s interest in hard-to-find and heirloom varieties of tomatoes blossomed about six years ago. “We went from growing a handful of varieties to growing six times that, as she followed ‘rabbit trails’ reading about and researching this old variety or that one,” Marshall said of Heinzel’s extensive tomato research.

Sawmill Creek Farms, which stretches across 3-plus sloping, sylvan acres in Paradise, starts its seed in a lively—as opposed to sterile—potting mix of Marshall’s formulation, which includes coco peat (from coconut husks), worm castings and perlite. Tomato seedlings are notorious for succumbing to “damping off”—a fungal infection in the tiny young stems; Heinzel and Marshall find that microbial-rich worm-castings “outpace fungal pathogens.”

Trays of “New Girl,” “Beefmaster” and “Abe Lincoln” tomato plants in the greenhouse at Sawmill Creek Farms in Paradise. These are just three of the farm’s 35 varieties.

Photo By Jennifer Jewell

Seed trays are heated from below on mats in the warmest greenhouse till they are big enough to move to the cooler buildings. This “tough love” of not keeping them too warm for too long, and beginning to “harden the young seedlings off,” provides a better root-to-shoot ratio, according to Marshall, and produces strong, thick stalks.

“More than half of our 35 tomato varieties were started from seed we saved from last year’s crops,” Heinzel said proudly. In an effort to promote self-sufficiency and the importance of preserving tasty, heirloom-seed strains successful for Northern California gardeners, Heinzel plans to grow even more varieties from seeds saved at the end of this season.

Since the mid-1900s, fewer and fewer tomato varieties are grown by large-scale commercial-agriculture outfits in an effort to improve efficiency; an increasing amount of seed on the mainstream market has been genetically modified. Small growers like Sawmill Creek Farms help to ensure home growers access to a wide variety of non-GMO seed and seed stock.

Sawmill Creek Farms began “like all good things, by accident,” said Marshall. In the late 1990s, Marshall and Heinzel decided to allow their 1-acre home-garden, growing beneath black oaks and gray pines along a small year-round creek, to continue expanding until it became the outstanding market-garden that it is, providing saleable produce almost year-round—from plant starts in spring, to fruit, veggies and herbs in summer, to dried beans and specialty spices such as smoked paprika in winter.

Behind tall deer-fencing—“a must in Paradise,” say Marshall and Heinzel—Sawmill Creek Farms’ crops are laid out in neat rows; many, including the tomatoes, scramble up hefty trellises “to allow for more production per square foot, and a lot less back-breaking bending.”

Seasonal produce fills weekly CSA-shareholder’s boxes during the growing season, April to November. It is also available on-site by appointment, and at various farmers’ markets around the area—including the Thursday Night Market in downtown Chico and the Paradise Farmers’ Market, which starts up in June. This year, Sawmill Creek Farms also began growing a portion of its fresh produce for several Paradise food pantries, which they donate through the charitable organization A Simple Gesture (

A variety of juicy and delicious homegrown tomatoes, including the cherry tomato “Black Prince,” the large “Beefmaster,” and “Principe Borghese,” which is good for drying. The author grew these in her garden last summer from Sawmill Creek Farms’ starts.

Photo By Jennifer Jewell

Chico gardener Joann Moor was one of the customers following Heinzel through the greenhouse. Moor first met Marshall and Heinzel at a talk they gave for the Chico Organic Gardening Society on growing tomatoes in the spring of 2010.

“I bought many of their varieties last year, and came to get my 2011 plants from them,” said Moor, holding a long list of the types of tomato she and her extended family would like to try this year. “We make a lot of sauce, so I like some of the varieties recommended for that, such as San Marzano.”

If you’re going to plant tomatoes, Marshall recommends preparing your garden soil with both good organic compost and some additional calcium—dolomitic lime if you live in the valley, and oyster shell in the foothills. To avoid blossom drop and blossom end-rot, water consistently and at the soil level, rather than using overhead spray.

“Pay attention to the weather forecast after April 15,” said Heinzel of the best time to plant tomatoes, “and place them out when nighttime temperatures are pretty consistently above 50 degrees. And stake them when you plant them!”

“We do not recommend placing the plants in the garden too early just to say you did,” offered Marshall.

He recommends the “bare-butt” test: If your bare butt does not feel the garden soil to be too cold, then your warm-season plants such as tomatoes and peppers are ready to be planted in the ground.

At one point, Heinzel recommended an heirloom tomato known as Jersey Devil. She described the bumpy, sausage-shaped tomato as a “gnarly-looking, big, fat wiener dog with a bad haircut.”

Moor, who had grown Jersey Devils before, piped in: “It made me happy every time I picked them last summer!”