Tomato Tips and Tricks by Patty Leander

home-grown-tomatoes

Nothing beats home grown Texas tomatoes. Photo by Bruce Leander

There are tomato lovers and tomato haters. Tomato haters are the ones who pick chunks of tomatoes out of their pasta or leave a neat pile of tomatoes on the side of their salad plate (you know who you are, BWL). Tomato lovers tend to reside in one of two groups: those who love tomatoes so much that they don’t care if they get their fix from a can, a bottle of ketchup or a supermarket tomato, and the other camp who eschews bland winter tomatoes and commercial tomato products and opts to eat the juicy fruit in season, fresh from the garden and whenever possible while standing IN the garden! Like most vegetable gardeners I prefer my tomatoes in season and hyper-local – direct from my garden to my table. My penchant for home-grown tomatoes means that I gobble up my last fresh tomato sometime in December and I don’t have a new crop until mid-May, and that’s if I’m lucky, so when spring planting season rolls around I am giddy with anticipation.

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‘Tomatoberry’ and ‘Jaune Flamme’ are some of Patty’s favorite varieties for the Austin area. Photo by Bruce Leander

March brings the promise of mild days and warm weather but seasoned Texas gardeners have no delusions about our ideal tomato-growing conditions. We have but a small window of opportunity between our average last frost (mid-March here in Central Texas) and that first string of 90 degree days (June if not earlier) when plants slowly succumb to the heat and pests of a typical Texas summer. We want to plant as early as we can yet we must be prepared to protect our charges if unpredictable spring weather brings a late cold snap. Be sure to have a supply of floating row cover, boxes, milk jugs, buckets or other means of protection on hand to cover tender transplants if frost threatens. Even without the threat of cold weather I like to wrap the outside of my tomato cages with row cover or plastic to protect plants from strong winds.

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A tomato laid on its side will quickly turn up and grow towards the sun. Picture by Bruce Leander

Row cover can sometimes be found at local garden centers or it can be ordered from a variety of online sources, including Texas Gardener (www.texasgardener.com), Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com) and Johnny’s Seed (www.johnnyseeds.com).

Before planting transplants in the ground it’s important to harden them off by gradually acclimating them to the outdoors. Start by setting them out in a protected spot on a patio or under a tree for an hour or two, gradually increasing their exposure to sun and outdoor temperatures. For best growth and production space plants 3-4 feet apart in the garden. Resist the urge to plant your tomatoes deep. Instead, remove the lower leaves and plant your transplants sideways in a shallow trench. This will keep the roots in the uppermost layer of soil where it is warmer and new feeder roots will sprout all along the stem, adding to the plant’s vigor. The stem will turn towards the sun and straighten out within a day or two.  Water new transplants with a half-strength fertilizer solution and as they grow gently direct their stems to keep them corralled inside their cage – this is much easier to do when they are young. Spray every 2-3 weeks with a liquid fertilizer and sidedress each plant with 1-2 tablespoons of granular garden fertilizer when the first fruit starts to form. Provide 1-1½ inches of water per week, and if possible use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to keep soil from splashing up on the leaves as this is sometimes how soil borne diseases get their start.

Nothing beats the complex taste of hierlooms like "Black Cherry".  Photo by Bruce Leander

Nothing beats the complex taste of hierlooms like “Black Cherry”. Photo by Bruce Leander

Most of the heirlooms that we love to eat take 80-90 days before that first juicy tomato is ripe for picking.  The intense heat of summer is not far behind so be sure to include some quick-maturing hybrid varieties that start producing in 65-75 days as insurance for a successful tomato crop.  ‘New Girl’ (62 days from transplanting), ‘Early Girl’ (57 days) and ‘Juliet’ (62 days) are all good bets. Most heirlooms don’t produce as reliably or prolifically as the hybrid varieties, but their beautiful colors, juiciness and complex flavors are hard to resist.  ‘Cherokee Purple’ (74 days), ‘Green Zebra’ (75 days) and ‘Black Krim’ (80 days) are popular varieties, and some years are better than others. Cherries are always a favorite – ‘Black Cherry’ (65 days), ‘Black Plum’ (82 days), ‘Sun Gold’ (57 days) and ‘Tomatoberry’ (60 days) bring interesting color, flavor and shape to the tomato harvest. If you have the space try experimenting with different varieties.  You just never know when you are going to find that perfect plant that fulfills all of your tomato expectations. When you do I hope you’ll share it with us here at the Masters of Horticulture!

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“Black Plun” is another great heirloom for the Austin area. Photo by Bruce Leander

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4 Responses to Tomato Tips and Tricks by Patty Leander

  1. Harry Cabluck says:

    Well-written and greatly informative for experienced and first-time tomato gardeners. Darnfine photos. harry.

    • Jay White says:

      Thanks Harry! Those were taken by another Austinite named Bruce Leander. His wife Patty is a Master Gardener and garden writer. They make a great team and I am very happy to have them writing for the blog!

  2. Donna Marie Burt says:

    I live in San Jose, California and have only my patio available to grow tomatoes. Pots about 5 gal. and I prefer Celebrity I do one plant per pot, would more work? I seem to have the leave curl over after awhile but plant marigolds to nip tomatoes worms in the bud! Never have them! Any tips in general?

    • Jay White says:

      I love San Jose! Many years ago I worked for a startup that was headquartered there. Spent many happy times in and around San Jose. Sounds like you have a handle on your container grown tomatoes. I would stick with one plant per pot. When planting, dig deep and cover the entire plant except the top layer of leaves. This will allow the plant to quickly develop a deep root system. Tomatoes are heavy feeders so two plants in one pot would really deplete the soil. When planting in pots use a high grade potting medium. Look for those that have compost in them. Try to keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy. Uneven soil moisture can lead to blossom end rot. In my part of Texas we often have to water our containers twice a day. All of that watering really leaches the nutrients out of the soil. I recommend fertilizeing at half strength every other week. If you are not organic, then Miracle Grow is great. For organic tomatoes use fish emulsion or seaweed extract. Both should be readily available in your garden center. Finally, do not forget support. Celebrity can make a big bush. I recommend using the heaviest gauge wire cage you can find. Many of the sturdier cages are painted so they look great in the pot while adding the support you need. Hope that helps and I wish you much success!

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