Smile, you’re a tomato lover

a Sacramento urban gardener gets her grow on


The brandywines are whipped—absolute toast.

As I write this in August, the sweet 100s are going great guns, with perfect little tomatoes ripening to orange-red perfection at the rate of almost a dozen per day. They explode with sweet-tart taste every time I eat one—and often don’t make it from the plant to the house.

The brandywines—an heirloom variety—are another matter altogether.

They look heat-stressed, their leaves curling up like wrinkly green tongues. But once watered, they don’t improve. All the tomatoes—and they are scarce—are very small, not even as big as a tennis ball. What’s worse, they seem to be rotting from the inside out before they can turn red.

I’ve taken drastic action, plucking them when they’re green and then letting them ripen on the windowsill. It’s not as tasty as vine-ripened, but at least I’m getting some tomatoes, wimpy or not.

This is my second summer as an urban gardener. I am not proficient at gardening (although I did get tomatoes to grow in Vermont, which many said could not be done successfully in such a short season). But lack of proficiency has never gotten between me and fresh, homegrown tomatoes, at least until I became a downtown apartment dweller almost six years ago.

My apartment is centrally located, well-shaded, near both light rail and bus lines—a perfect urban spot. But there is no soil anywhere on the property. I have lovely decks, thoroughly shaded by even more lovely trees. The only spot with direct sunlight on the property is the strip next to the garage where the recycle bins live.

So what’s an urbanite with a serious jones for fresh tomatoes supposed to do with all this concrete and shade?

And then, one year ago, I saw some big plastic pots at Ace Hardware. Before you could say “salsa,” I had a big pot o’ cherry tomatoes growing right next to the recycle bins. It was surprisingly easy: one sweet 100s cherry tomato plant, one big pot, a couple of bags of soil and a watering can. I also picked up some Miracle-Gro tomato food (I’m not ready to go organic yet—no room for a compost pile), and I had cherry tomatoes from May to October last year.

So this year, I decided to move into the land of the full-sized tomato, and I picked up an heirloom brandywine at Talini’s Nursery & Garden Center, along with another big pot, fresh soil and my sweet 100s.

But heirloom brandywines are temperamental, I guess, or just not suited to pot gardening. They grew quickly, but it was all plant, and when the tomatoes finally started appearing, as mentioned above, they were sparse, small and unhealthy. Some have rotted from the inside out, which is really gross.

That means I need some advice, and fortunately, there are places to go for it. Apartment life does not mean the food all has to come from a grocery store or the local farmers’ market.

For example, the Sacramento-based Sustainable Urban Gardens website ( has plenty of information about how to make the most of whatever minimal space you’ve got available. The advice does tend to lean toward organic gardening (which is a plus, if you’ve got any space at all), and they have plenty of resources, but a negative for me and my pots is a bias toward gardeners who actually have a little land to work with. Still, a reasonable person can translate the information for even smaller scales, so that’s just a minor glitch.

Really, urban gardening can be done anywhere there’s sunlight—a deck, a roof or, in my case, a little space next to the garage. Pots work fine: small ones for herbs, bigger ones for larger vegetables. Root vegetables need taller pots, but not as much surface area. I’m serious—my aunt has grown carrots and beets in pots on the deck outside her mobile home.

And if you want more space than pots provide (although they come in so many sizes it’s unreal), I’ve seen people who have done a good job of gardening with easy-to-build raised garden beds, or by adapting kids’ swimming pools (poke holes in the bottom for drainage or you’re just building a private marsh) or turning tires into large planters.

Some people have even had success with those Topsy Turvy tomato and strawberry planters that are hung upside down. I have one for strawberries that didn’t get used this year; my limited space in the sun went to my ever-privileged tomatoes.

But what’s really important is to start where you’re comfortable. If you’ve never grown a thing, try some herbs in a windowsill planter. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to use—and eat—things you’ve grown yourself.

Of course, the tomato addiction means I’ve really only got one choice for what goes in my pots. And next year, the brandywines are history. I’ll get some advice from a real gardener—perhaps one of the UC Davis Master Gardeners in the Sacramento area—about what to try that has more pot-sticking power.

Meanwhile, the only thing that gets between me and my cherry tomatoes is, well, my hand. They have to be picked before they can be eaten.

For information on urban gardening, consult Sustainable Urban Gardens ( or check out the UC Davis Sacramento Master Gardener’s website ( Both groups will answer questions and keep listings of gardening classes and workshops.