Six Degrees of Separation

Microclimates can make—or break—a great tomato.


A sunny garden may reward you with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes.

Planning your garden is like writing to Santa—you want a pony and a kitten, you get a video game and a sweater. Let’s look at your list. You have six different kinds of tomatoes (who could resist Wild Boar Farms’ “Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye”?), cutting lettuce mix, Asian cukes, pole beans, corn, extra-hot peppers, chard, spinach, and one ganja plant (as practice for the six allowed next year).

Now let’s get real. We’re all in zone 9, but that tells us little beyond the lowest average winter temperature. Are you in an East Oakland sun pocket that lasts most of the day? If you are, try that corn and tie-dyed tomato. A Berkeley hills fog bank that burns off by 11 and rolls back in at 4? Better stick to lettuce, chard, and spinach. In fact, you might want to add snap peas and bok choy to your slice of heaven.

We are talking microclimates here—and yours is as tiny as your front and backyard. Let’s say that your house faces west. Your front yard is hotter than your backyard, which, because of your house, is in partial shade during the afternoon. But you get nice morning sun back there, so if you create a raised bed toward the rear of your property, you have a decent chance of growing scrumptious keepers. In your drier front yard, do something different—plant beans on trellises with a couple of squash plants underneath. Both bean and squash flowers are pretty, and the plants will give you a nice screen from the street.

During the winter months, shade/sun differences are maximized, because the sun is much lower in the sky (in the summer, the sun crosses more nearly overhead). The north side of your yard may be in constant shade. It helps to go outside and visualize where the sun will be in different parts of the year. For vegetables of any sort, you want sun for part of the day. You can grow lettuce and spinach in as little as five hours of sun, while tomatoes need eight to taste good. Increase exposure by trellising, growing against a south- or west-facing wall, and the like. Lettuce and spinach can get away with shade as long as they have some sun during the day.

Once you understand your own microclimates, you can strategize your seed-starting. Let’s assume that we have a sunny May and a gloomy June and July. Start lettuce, spinach, and other shady customers in May, when they’ll get a great start, and put them out to thrive in the overcast skies of early summer.

Think about starting a couple of indeterminate tomatoes in June. Normally that would be too late—but for us, Indian summer is the sunniest time of year. Check out the days to harvest on the tomato package (add about three weeks, as those are days from transplant) to end up with plants going like gangbusters in late August. In a normal summer, that will give you good-tasting tomatoes all through September and October. (Cherry tomatoes are more forgiving.) Why indeterminate? In the East Bay, indeterminate tomatoes, which keep on keepin’ on ’til they collapse from frost or mildew, have a better chance of finding our variable windows of opportunity.

If you have a sunny roof, you can create a minigarden up top, eliminating deer, slugs, snails, and shade from trees. Get a few storage tote containers and a roll of hydration matting. Install the mats about an inch above the bottom of the tote (screens or grills work to raise the mats—experiment!). This creates a water well so that you need to water less. Fill the totes to an inch below the top with excellent quality garden soil. I’ve managed to grow cantaloupes in that system! (OK, they were called ‘Collective Farm Woman.’)

That ganja plant? You must start seeds in February or March for tall plants—but you’re not going for an 8-foot tree. Unlike tomatoes, once daylight begins to lessen (after June 21), you’re headed towards flowering. Starting seeds late will give you small plants and perhaps no buds. Instead, head to your  dispensary and get a clone or two. Examine them carefully for bugs and/or droopiness. The trouble with clones (as opposed to seeds) is that you have no idea which iteration you’re getting—first generation (super strong) or 16th (not so much). Some will “gift” you with spider mites, powdery mildew, or russet mites. Plus, given the mold factor, if you are in a true fog bank, stick to mushrooms.

The main point here is to go out into your yard with your wish list and nail down spots, thinking ahead a few months. Consider when to start the seeds to take advantage of the best sun. You’ll succeed some years and not others. But at least you won’t plant tomatoes on the north side of your house—even if it’s the only space you have.


This report appears in the May edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.


Published online on May 18, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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