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Copyright © 2006
Express Publishing Inc
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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free three times a year to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper will receive the Sun Valley Guide with their subscription.

grow habitat
Tomatoes on the edge
writer: Dana DuGan, photographer: Paulette Phlipot

The tomato, America’s favorite vegetable (or is it a fruit?), is native from Peru to Mexico to southern North America. In the Wood River Valley’s high-desert climate the tomato is a short-lived perennial plant grown as an annual, which typically grows up to 3 feet in height, on a weak, fibrous stem.

So which is it: a fruit or a vegetable? Botanists say it’s a fruit, classified as a berry. This is because tomatoes are a ripened mature ovary containing seed, as are peppers, eggplants and cucumbers. On the other hand, horticulturists insist the tomato is a vegetable, since it’s a non-woody annual. Backing the horticulturists is the Supreme Court, which, for trade reasons, classified it as a vegetable in 1893. Either way, the tomato has progressed from being a tiny, watery, acidic fruit to today’s delicious giant.

To grow or not to grow?
Growing tomatoes in the high-altitude climate of the Wood River Valley is tricky, to be sure, but it is possible. The short growing season here leaves many gardeners with still-green tomatoes just as the first frost hits. If this happens, pick the orbs with stems intact, bring them inside and place in a paper bag to ripen. Tomatoes can then be blanched, frozen and used for sauces and soups through the winter months.

Gardeners in the know, and those with the right space and light, start from seed and start early. “I always start my seeds in the house in good light in February in little peat pots,” said Salomé Taylor, who lives in old Hailey, on the sunnier east side of town. “By April, I have put them in four-inch pots. Then I start hardening them off (taking the plant outside for parts of the day to acclimatize it before finally moving it into the garden for good) and they go into my garden, under UV-tolerant polyethelene or with Wall O’ Waters (plastic teepees containing individual tubes filled with water). I have tomatoes by the end of July, through August and beyond, until the first frost.”

Taylor’s favorite varieties are Siberians such as Shasha’s Altai, the yellow cherry Galina and the red Stupice, the Gem State and the Sub-arctic Plenty. She orders them from Seed Trust High Altitude Gardens (, an Arizona-based company run by Ketchum native Bill McDorman.

Location matters
Location plays a major role in the success of tomato gardeners. Ketchum is a harder sell for tomatoes, but with a good greenhouse window or south-facing, protected plot, it’s possible. In Bellevue and farther south, the climate is even better than in Hailey.

Gardening is different on the prairie, according to Tona Backman Stilwill, of Fair Mountain Farms in Fairfield. “I leave Wall O’ Waters on (all season) so that if you have a freak frost, you’re ready,” she said. “I’ve never had any fungus, and they also help keep the plants upright and sheltered from high winds. With Wall O’ Waters you can get them in the ground in May. The water absorbs the heat in the day and radiates it at night.

“Staking tomatoes is really important,” continued Stilwill. “Use good sturdy stakes. It’s essential to have good soil. I put generous compost into the hole when I plant, and a handful of Epsom salts—I read once that phosphorus is essential for root development. Also try not to splash the plant when watering,” she said, as getting water on the leaves can lead to disease. “You should be generous with the water in the beginning, but once it starts to set with fruit, back off or you will get watery tomatoes. Get them almost to a wilting point and then give the plants a good soak.”

No matter how finicky it is about weather swings, this delicious fruity vegetable is definitely worth your patience.

Tips for tasty tomatoes
-If space and light allow, start from seed, plant in pots indoors and start early, ideally in February or March.

-If you must start outdoors, choose the sunniest spot available. Start after the last frost. Buy small plants, available from local garden centers, making sure they were started from hardy seeds appropriate for the area.

-Plant tomatoes deeply, with the lowest set
of leaves at soil level, and press the soil down gently.

-Many gardeners remove the first flowers to allow roots to grow still deeper.

-Always stake or cage the vines for healthy, productive crops.

-Mulch plants well with a layer of straw, leaves, dried grass clippings or pine needles to keep the plants’ roots cool, prevent weeds from sprouting around them and retain moisture in the soil. Do not apply mulch until after the soil warms to 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

-Consider using Wall O’ Waters, available
at local garden centers, to keep your tomato plants warm and protected throughout the growing season.

-Things to avoid: overcrowding, over-
fertilizing and over-watering.

-If you’ve tried and tried and tried again,
and are still left with tiny, hard, green things, consider a greenhouse. If space doesn’t allow for a full-sized one, small greenhouse frames may work. Check with a local
garden center to find the best one to suit local needs.

Which tomatoes will grow?
-Good growers for this area include various Siberians such as Shasha’s Altai, Galina, Stupice, sub-arctic Plenty, Aurora and Perestroika.

-Early Girls, although not considered high altitude, will do just fine in the south valley, and in south-facing gardens with ample protection from the elements.

-Gem State matures the quickest, in just 58 days, and produces small, 2 oz. fruits. A cross between a sub-arctic and a larger, beefsteak tomato, its compact, bush-type growth makes it excellent for containers and patio gardens.

-Indeterminate varieties produce vines that keep growing. This also means tomatoes continue to ripen over the entire season. The determinate varieties will grow as a bush and ripen at once.