Gearing up to Grow San Marzanos

Last year I constructed a vegetable garden in our backyard, approximately 90 square feet in size, in which we grew several different herbs and vegetables. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed doing so, and are excited to have this eternal cold lift this winter so we can start planting and preparing for this year’s crop.  With my current obsession with marinara sauce, I figured, why not grow this tomato that everyone is talking about, the famous Italian San Marzano.  We grew tomatoes last year, Beefsteaks, a variety of Cherry Tomatoes and a variety of small plum tomatoes last year and were fairly successful.  We learned a lot about respecting the minimum separation distances for plant placement however, as our garden was overrun with tomatoes and zucchinis as well.

This year, I decided to be more selective of the varieties of tomatoes that we’ll grow, and decided to start the plants indoors from seeds.  I selected a couple different varieties to grow, including the famous San Marzano.  Now, I’m a realist, and I understand that the San Marzanos that I grow will not be as good as the San Marzanos that grow in Campania, Italy in the volcanic soils of Mt. Vesuvius, but nonetheless, I will try.  There’s something really special about eating something that was made from ingredients that were grown in your backyard.

For those of you that have never heard of San Marzano tomatoes, they’re pretty much the Cadillac of the marinara sauce world.  They’re sweet, stronger tasting, less seedy and the flesh is thicker, which all makes for a better sauce tomato.  There are similar to the Roma tomato, or Italian Plum Tomato, which you likely have seen in your grocery store.  Actually, according to Wikipedia, the Roma tomato is a cross between the San Marzano and the two other varieties of tomatoes.

San Marzano tomatoes that are grown in San Marzano region of Campania, Italy carry the “D.O.P.” stamp (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) on their can along with a serial number.  This makes them legit, and also, as a result, makes them very expensive in comparison to other canned tomatoes.  Our local Independent Grocer carries two types of DOP tomatoes, Pastene brand for $4 and PC Black Label brand for $6.50.  In comparison to the other brands like Unico, No Name, Aylmer, and PC Organics which all cost around $1.00 – $1.50, that quite expensive.  I could talk about this more (as I’ve read a lot about these tomatoes now) but its not really the point of this blog entry.  Check out the Blork Blog’s entry called The Great San Marzano Tomato Fraud for a good read on the subject.  Long story short: these famous tomatoes intrigued me, so now I’m going to grow them, OK?

To start this project I began looking for a suitable seed farmer in Ontaro that sold San Marzano seeds, and someone that I felt I could trust to sell me viable seeds.  My search eventually led me to an Ontario farm called Hawthorn Farm, located in Palmerston, Ontario.  Their website contained tons of varieties of heirloom vegetables and several varieties of herbs, flowers and grasses as well.  Their tomato category alone contains over 40 varieties, including the San Marzano.  I purchased five different varieties, some slicers, some sauce tomatoes and some small yellow tomatoes that my daughter thoroughly enjoys.  I recently planted the seeds in a self-watering seed starting tray that I purchased from Lee Valley Tools in Toronto.  I really like this tray and so far it’s been very successful in starting seeds.  Almost all of the seeds that I have planted have now sprouted and seem to be healthy, including the San Marzanos, which you can see in the photo below.

San Marzano Sprouts

San Marzano Sprouts, 7 Days After Planting

The next step, as the seeds are sprouting, is to give them good light.  In order to do so, I have constructed a wooden grow light stand that holds a 4 foot, double T8 fluorescent bulb shop light at adjustable heights.  I plan to keep this grow light in the basement on a timer that will provide my plants with 12 to 14 hours of light each day to get them growing well.  After they outgrow their seed trays I plan on moving them into larger newspaper pots for a month to 6 weeks before they will be ready to be planted outdoors in the garden.


If all goes well, I should be able to produce enough tomatoes to last me most of the winter and provide my little girl with enough sauce to satisfy her pasta obsession.  I plan on either freezing or canning the tomatoes, but haven’t decided on which preservation method yet.  I’ll post my progress to this blog, for those that are interested.


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