Gardener, farmer and gourmet cook at heart, Bill Pioch, owner of Nature’s Heirlooms in Lapeer, Michigan, is an expert tomato grower. This year he will have about 1,000 tomato plants of about sixty varieties. An interview with Pioch could take a goodly portion of a day or ten, but this article will focus on some of his tips to growing better tomatoes, especially in the Midwest, with much of the advice being universal. Comments or explanations by the writer are contained in parenthesis.

This author has taken the taste test at Nature’s Heirlooms Farm and there is just nothing to compare with the colors and fabulous taste of an heirloom tomato right off the vine. It is amazing however, that any of the tomatoes actually make it to market!

Q – When is the best time to plant tomatoes outside?


Pioch – “In Hardiness Zone 5 Michigan it is the first week in June. Soil temperature should be consistent at 60° Fahrenheit with a night temperature of no less than 55°”.


Q – When should seeds be started?

Pioch – “Start seeds six weeks prior to planting in the ground. Use seeds from reputable companies that are located in your area. In other words northern gardeners should not buy southern grown seeds.”

Q – What are your secrets for starting seeds?

Pioch – “Seeds are started in a plug tray (multi celled partitioned tray) with soilless potting mix (a light mix made mostly of sphagnum moss, perlite and vermiculite) along with cow manure and dry Espoma (brand name with several products). I plant them only 1/8 inch deep and water from the bottom. I also use heat mats set at 80° for five to seven days. When two true leaves appear they are transferred to a 3” pot after the next two leaves, to a 6” pot. I use fluorescent lights immediately, set one inch above plants for sixteen to eighteen hours a day. Lastly, I pet my seedlings! This simulates wind and makes them grow stronger stems.” (…and maybe makes them happy!)

Q – Give us some tips on planting and early care.

Pioch “First I harden them off before planting, by gradually exposing them to more natural light. I plant the tomatoes deep, to keep them sturdy. They should be planted two feet apart in all directions and shouldn’t need a lot of water if planted in good soil and have strong roots. Soil should dry down to three inches or the weather must be consistently hot and dry before I need to water. I mulch them with straw, but for homeowners red plastic is also great.” (Studies have shown that red plastic can produce higher yields.) “I also prepare the garden bed soil with dry Espoma added two weeks before planting, composted manure and green manure (early cover crop grown to be incorporated into the soil).”

Q – What soil pH is best for tomatoes?

Pioch – “The best soil pH for tomatoes is 6.5 to 7. If you are in doubt, have your soil tested by your university extension service, (for Michigan it is Michigan State University Extension) or an outside laboratory.”

Q – What type of fertilizer do you use?

Pioch – “I use liquid kelp, like Fertrell along with MYKE (microrhizae which is a valuable specific fungus that helps roots branch to enable them to take up more water and nutrients and help plants to withstand more stress) and beneficial nematodes. Foliar feeding with kelp can help plants withstand early frosts.”

photo_-_bill_pioch_-_white_tomato_-_august_2008_100_7266.pngQ – What practices help you obtain a good yield and keep plants healthy during the growing season?

Pioch – “I foliar feed regularly with liquid kelp and I use cattle fencing instead of stakes. The plants are woven through the fencing as they grow, saving a lot of work. I also remove all suckers and I top (cut off) the plant when it reaches the height of the fence. This keeps the plant producing tomatoes and not green growth. Also, when watering, make sure you stay consistent. Too much water after a drought can cause the tomato to crack.

Q – Why do some plants have tomatoes all season and some have a very narrow window of producing?  

Pioch – “About 90 percent of all heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate. This means they bear tomatoes all season (They are sometimes called vining tomatoes, because they continue to grow to 6-10 feet if allowed). Many hybrids are determinate; they bear during a two week time frame. (The determinate varieties tend to be bush type and reach a specific height of about 4-5 feet. Pruning and removing suckers isn’t usually recommended for this type). There are advantages to both. Some people prefer indeterminate varieties (recognized and named separate types by color and special characteristics) so they can have tomatoes all season. A person that cans tomatoes prefers the determinate type since it allows them to harvest and can all at one time.”

Q – How do you know if a tomato is determinate or indeterminate?

Pioch – “Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate and many sold in nurseries or catalogs are determinate, unless they say heirloom or otherwise. (Burpee catalog and other reputable catalogs include this information).

Q – What are some of your favorite varieties?  

Pioch – “’Coyote’ (cherry-type ivory), ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ (cherry-type red), ‘Japanese Black Trifele’ (purple/black), ‘Brandywine’ (black), ‘Cherokee’ (purple), ‘Wapsipinicon Peach’ (fuzzy yellow/pink), ‘Great White’ (large white), ‘Rosalita’ (rosy pink), ‘Ananas Noire’ (translates to black pineapple and has colorful interior), ‘Oaxacan Jewel’ (yellow with red streaks) and ‘Sweet Orange Roma’ (determinate, great for sauce, orange)”

Q – What companies do you recommend for purchasing heirloom seeds?

Pioch – “Well, I save seeds myself, (which is another giant topic) but I also buy from www.Mariseeds.com which is the website for Marianna’s Heirloom Seeds. Lastly, Bill Pioch recommends using various color tomatoes in salads, salsas and canning, for the contrast in color and the great blend of flavors! Now, go and grow some great tasting tomatoes!

Sandie is a freelance writer and photographer. Her mother started her passion for gardening by "letting" her help her plant and water annuals, paint stepping stones and mow and edge the grass. Some of the "dirt" must have been absorbed. She consider herself to be a plant collector. Her garden had a plan, but it has been overrun by cool and not so cool plants. If they grow and bloom or look nice, they stay. That includes what many people might call weeds! Sandie calls them wildflowers or native plants. Check out her website at www.SandieParrott.com for more info, or visit her profile at www.theMulch.com/my-profile/userprofile/SandieP. She currently writes garden articles and profiles of passionate gardeners for "the Michigan Gardener" and "the Herbarist" along with other non-gardening writing.  


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