Out of the gate I had to admit to scene-stealer, P.J. Byrne, that I have a gangrene thumb – by which I mean everything I put in soil turns black and dies. While visiting his Silver Lake home, P.J. reassures me that if there’s dirt and it gets sun – I should plant something. A Garden State native, P.J. has cultivated plum, cherry, peach, and nectarine trees, but started predominantly with tomatoes. Maybe tilling the land is in his DNA, seeing as his grandfather grew up on a farm in Sicily and taught him the basics at an early age. P.J. and his wife, Jaime, are expecting a daughter in September and he hopes to pass down the family tradition. Below is his tomato primer, starting with his grandfather’s first edict, “If you see a rock, chuck it!”
Determinate vs. Indeterminate. Determinate plants will bear fruit throughout the season while indeterminate will produce fruit only once. P.J. primarily opts for determinate varieties – such as San Marzano, Big Boy, and cherry tomatoes – and plants just one indeterminate a season, the Roma.
Dig Up Some Dirt. Mix organic soil with your own dirt and, if available, put grass clippings on the ground between the plants, which will protect the soil from the sun and keep it moist underneath. P.J. frequents Sunset Nursery and compliments their knowledgeable staff.
Give a Tomato Its Space. When planting, don’t be afraid to bury the plant up to half its length in soil and make sure to space the plants at least 24″ apart in order for them to develop their root system and to alleviate their fight for water.
Rattle Their Cage. Determinates will grow 6-8 feet tall, while indeterminates will stand at approximately 3-4 feet. He recommends using tomato cages early to prevent the fruit from hitting the ground and becoming prone to rot or infection.
To Water or Not To Water. Drown the plants at first to help develop the root system and then slowly wean them from water and be judicious of wetting them down. Over watering causes the fruit to deplete in flavor. Also, avoid wetting the leaves. P.J. uses a low-pressure water wand.
Elbow Room. Rip off the extraneous portion of the plant growing at the “elbow” so only the fruit-bearing arms of the plant will get water.
P.J. has been experimenting with a variety of tomatoes to develop and market the Sunday supper tomato sauce that replicates his grandparent’s recipe. In homage to his Jersey roots, it will simply be known as “Gravy.”
And if you can read his writing, the recipe is all yours.
P.J. stresses the sense of community that comes with urban gardening, where neighbors share techniques and their garden loot. He can next be seen in the CBS series, Intelligence. Click here for more of P.J. Byrne’s helpful tips for growing tomatoes.