Pacific Northwest Regional Reports

Tips to Grow Better Cherry Tomatoes in Northern California

Learn what techniques and varieties will lead to the greatest success in our unpredictable climate

cherry tomatoes
Although they are small in size, many cherry tomato varieties are big in flavor.

Though technically a fruit, the tomato is the most popular homegrown vegetable, with thousands of tasty varieties available for the kitchen gardener to choose from. Tomatoes can range from big beefy slicers down to tiny, pea-size, pop-a-handful-in-your-mouth morsels. Vine-ripened tomatoes fresh from the garden are an incredible treat, and they’re quite easy to grow! Sometimes it can be tricky to get the perfect crop of cherry tomatoes in Northern California, however, with our cool, foggy summers delaying ripening, or an unexpected rain shower bringing on blossom-end rot. If this happens where you live, or if you’re new to gardening, try growing cherry tomatoes. Not only are they easier to grow than larger tomatoes, but they’re extremely productive, quicker to harvest, delightfully tasty, and perfectly sized for snacking.

tomato plant seedlings in a tray
Start your cherry tomato seeds indoors to get a jump on the season and to harvest fruit as early as possible.

Your climate will determine how and when you grow cherry tomatoes in Northern California

Like all tomatoes, cherry tomatoes are frost tender but can be started indoors up to six weeks before your last average frost date. The seedlings can be transplanted into the garden as soon as all frost danger has passed. Cold soil stunts a tomato plant’s growth, leading to poorer yields, so for best success plan on transplanting when soil temperatures are consistently above 60°F. Check online or with your local nursery or Master Gardener program for this vital information. I celebrate Earth Day (April 22) by planting my tomato garden, but always keep an eye on weather reports if you plant this early in case a late frost is predicted. A timely draping of frost cloth has rescued my tomatoes more than once over the past 20 years.

shopping for tomato plant seedlings
Whether you grow your plants from seed at home or buy them from a garden center, bury them deeply into the soil so that just the top set of leaves is left exposed. This leads to stronger plants.

Planting tips for cherry tomatoes

A full-sun location and rich, well-amended, well-drained soil is important. When planting a young plant, bury the stem all the way up to the top set of leaves so that most of the stem is in the ground. The stem will root along the buried portion, and with more roots, more nutrients will reach your plant. This will lead to a stronger plant and lots more tomatoes. Firm the soil around your plant, and water in well. Keep in mind that in hotter inland areas of Northern California you might need to shade your plants during more-intense heat waves.

Watering tips for cherry tomatoes

Consistent, deep watering is recommended, with a decrease in frequency as the fruits mature to intensify their flavor. Though cherry tomatoes do not generally suffer from blossom-end rot (a classic result of inconsistent watering in larger tomato varieties), overwatering or erratic watering can result in bland-tasting, watery tomatoes or split-skinned fruit.

cherry tomatoes ripening on the vine
For indeterminate vines that get quite large and rangy, a sturdy tomato cage or trellis is ideal. This helps support the wild plants, especially when the fruit begins to weigh stems down.

Spacing tips for cherry tomatoes

Space out your plants to ensure they have room to grow. I know those seedlings are only 4-inches tall, but many indeterminate varieties (‘Sungold’, for example) reach 8 to 10 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide at maturity. Staking, trellising, and caging are all great support options and ensure better air circulation and easier picking at harvest time. A determinate cherry tomato stays smaller, is much better behaved, and is the perfect choice for smaller gardens, tighter spaces, or containers.

Tip: Learn the difference between determinate and indeterminate plants

Determinate tomato plants are smaller vines and produce tomatoes that all ripen around the same time. Indeterminate plants are larger and rangier, and they continue to produce new growth and tomatoes throughout the growing season.

Top-performing cherry tomatoes in Northern California

NorCal summer temperatures can be quite variable depending on location and weather patterns, but these incredibly productive cherry tomatoes reliably produce exceptionally delicious crops no matter where you grow them.

Indigo Cherry Drops cherry tomato
Don’t be fooled by its weird coloring. ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ cherry tomato has a delicious flavor and a high antioxidant level to boot.

‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ cherry tomato (indeterminate)

71 days to maturity

Each long airy truss of this plant carries up to a dozen beautiful, indigo-toned cherry tomatoes. The fruit is extra full of antioxidants due to the high anthocyanin content. Ripening to a gorgeous, deep rosy red with an attractive purple blush, ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ are beautiful even when green, and mouthwateringly delicious when ready to eat. This is an impressively vigorous, highly productive, somewhat rangy plant.

‘Sakura’ cherry tomato (semi-determinate)

70 days to maturity

This is definitely my favorite red cherry tomato. ‘Sakura’ is an early variety with up to a dozen little bright red, shiny, rich, and sweet tomatoes per cluster, and so many clusters per tidy plant that it’s hard to keep up. The juicy, flavorful fruits hold well on the vine without cracking, allowing the whole truss to be harvested all at once. This is an ideal plant for smaller spaces or containers.

Lemon Cherry cherry tomatoes
When this immature ‘Lemon Cherry’ fruit fully ripens, it will turn bright yellow.

‘Lemon Cherry’ cherry tomato (indeterminate)

58 days to maturity

A delightfully productive variety, this gem produces abundant clusters of deliciously sweet, fruity, lemon-yellow, half-ounce cherry tomatoes. The vigorous vines produce these full-flavored snacking tomatoes early, abundantly, and over a long period. ‘Lemon Cherry’ is tolerant of the wide range of temperatures and conditions often experienced in a NorCal summer.

‘Rosella’ cherry tomato (indeterminate)

70 days to maturity

These little smoke-blushed, deep pink to purple cherries measure barely ½ inch across and are deliciously rich and fruity in flavor. The fruit tastes like a blend of raspberries and blackberries. Boasting the perfect balance between sweetness and acidity, ‘Rosella’ tomatoes are practically seedless, making them extra good for snacking yet still solid enough to cook up into a rich, deep red tomato sauce.

Sunsugar cherry tomatoes
The fruit of ‘Sunsugar’ looks like orange Skittles and is almost as sweet as that popular candy.

‘Sunsugar’ cherry tomato (indeterminate)

62 days to maturity

Though the variety ‘Sungold’ is much adored, its habit of cracking after a rain shower can be disappointing. This deep golden-yellow jewel of a tomato—with its rich, sweet, tangy “true tomato” flavor and superb texture—is the perfect crack-resistant alternative. ‘Sunsugar’ is a vigorous, heavy, early producer, and the dainty little tomatoes practically taste like candy.

—Fionuala Campion is the owner and manager of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma in Petaluma, California.

Photos: Fionuala Campion

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