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.
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.
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.
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!