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.

jaune_flamme_tomato

‘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.

sideways_tomato

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!

black_plum_tomato

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

Tomato Varieties for 2013 By William Adams ©

The following varieties should do well on their own roots.  Some claim nematode resistance (N) and that seems to be a primary factor in achieving late season/fall production.

Nematodes can decimate a tomato's root system.  Photo By Bruce Leander

Nematodes can decimate a tomato’s root system. Photo By Bruce Leander

Celebrity N, Champion (Champion II seems to be the main variation of this variety left, fruits are a bit smaller but it is N resistant. Regular Champion may be too virus susceptible), Better Boy N, Viva Italia N, Tomande N, Juliet (small, saladette type), Momotaro, Early Goliath N, Tycoon, Fourth of July (Campari size).   Cherry types= Sungold, Tomaccio, , Sweet 100, Sweet Million N, Sweet Chelsea N, BHN 968 N.

Juliet is always a great choice for the fall garden.  This photo is the copyrighted property of William D Adams and cannot be published without written permission from William D Adams.

Juliet is always a great choice for the fall garden. This photo is the copyrighted property of William D Adams and cannot be published without written permission from William D Adams.

This second list of varieties may produce fine early in the season, especially on new soils and on soils where nematode susceptible plants haven’t been grown for several years but they can really produce much better crops when grafted on nematode resistant rootstock.  Even varieties on the previous list that don’t claim nematode resistance may need to be grown as grafts on nematode resistant rootstock to improve productivity.  (Johnny’s Seeds does offer special rootstock varieties but the home gardener may want to go with cheaper and easier to find seed like Celebrity for their initial grafting experiments—see Johnny’s website for tomato grafting instructions.  Rotating to non susceptible crops like sweet corn, planting cereal rye as a fall cover crop (use a line trimmer and dig in-in the spring), dry tilling in the late summer (nematodes need moisture to survive) and solarizing the soil=work the soil up, dampen and cover with a single layer of clear, UV resistant plastic for at least 60 days during the July-September time period to reduce nematode populations.

Black Krim is a very tasty addition to the fall garden.  This photo is the copyrighted property of William D Adams and cannot be published without written permission from William D Adams.

Black Krim is a very tasty addition to the fall garden. This photo is the copyrighted property of William D Adams and cannot be published without written permission from William D Adams.

Black Sea Man, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Moskvich, Flamme, Cherokee Purple, Marianna’s Peace (a favorite in 2012), J D’s Central Texas Early Black, Persimmon, Purple Calabash, Kosovo, German Johnson, Green Zebra and Talladega Hybrid.  All of these varieties from both lists have excellent flavor and texture

Five Must Grow Tomatoes by William D. Adams

I am truly blessed to be able to call many of the top horticulturists in the country friend.  My work at A&M has exposed me to so many people that are truly experts in their fields of study.  I call these people “Masters of Horticulture”.  I started this blog because I was so inspired by these experts and all they were teaching me that I wanted to be able to document it and share it with others.

Today’s guest author, William (Bill) D. Adams, is one of these Masters of Horticulture.  He and I became aquainted through a theater group we both support.  Soon after we met, Bill read a little article that I had written for Hort Update.  He encouraged me to write more and even acted as my sponsor for the Garden Writer’s Association.  The rest as they say is history.

Bill spent 31 years honing his craft as an extension specialist in Harris County.  Upon retirement he set out to learn everything there was to know about the tomato.  His efforts have resulted in the publication of the “Texas Tomato Lover’s Handbook“.  This best selling, comprehensive work tells you everything you need to know so you can grow the best tomatoes possible in the difficult and unpredictable Texas climate.  As you will see when you read his book, Bill’s extensive research (which means growing EVERY tomato he mentions) has made him the UNDISPUTED tomato king of Texas.  Because of this, I am thrilled to share this article about the best tomatoes for your Texas garden from the King himself.  Enjoy!

Five Must Grow Tomatoes by William D. Adams

Tomato varieties come and go but the ones with great flavor, a juicy, melting flesh and healthy, easy-to-grow vines are the ones we treasure.  Narrowing the list to five is almost impossible for a true tomato lover so forgive me if I throw in a few alternates.

Medium to medium-large slicer—a tomato that will make you burger zing, your BLT complete and your neighbors envious.  Champion Hybrid is still at the top in this category but you could make do with Celebrity, Talladega or Tycoon.  Any of these tomato varieties makes the grade when it comes to nice acidity (though not just sour), complex sweet tomato flavors and a melting to firm flesh (no grainy or brick hard tomatoes in this bunch).

Here is a pic of Bill in his 2010 trial garden. He grew, tested, compared and documented 89 varieties that year!

Medium size and so scrumptious you will lick the juice from the plate.  Momotaro, a Japanese pink tomato was the hit of the tomato patch in 2010 (one of eighty nine varieties in the authors test garden-only tried about 50 varieties in 2011).  This tomato had acidity, sweet tomato flavor and a wonderful melting texture.  It’s as good as any heirloom with less cracking and more production.

Persimmon is an heirloom that my wife Debbi insists I grow every year.  It is a big, orangery-red, persimmon colored tomato that will lap over a burger.  Total yield isn’t that great but we don’t care.  This year we are growing it grafted on hybrid rootstock to see if we can produce more of these delicious beauties.

Plant one of the Black tomatoes or a yellow, green or white one just to be different.  The black tomatoes—often referred to Black Russian tomatoes are very tasty—they are often described as “having Smokey undertones”.  They also have some acid zip and a depth of flavor that the most accomplished wine connoisseur will be challenged to describe.  Recent favorites include Cherokee Purple, Black from Tula and Black Sea Man.  The plum-shaped Nyagous has been a hit in previous years.  Green Zebra is refreshing, Flamme is an orange “golf ball” with lip smacking flavor and Snow White cherry is sweet and mild (best when pale yellow).

Cherry tomatoes are typically delicious but one of the best is Sweet Chelsea.  Sweet 100, Sweet Million, Rite Bite, BHN 624, Sun Cherry and Sungold will also wake up your taste buds.  Don’t set out too many cherries or you’ll be picking fruit every night until dark.

Watering in several “Black From Tula” seedlings that I started from seed.