Spring tomato strategies

by CHRIS WINSLOW

I like to think of it as my favorite time of year, my ‘Rite of Spring,’ when I go outside to plant America’s favorite backyard vegetable, the tomato.

2012 was an outstanding year for tomato growers. Winter did not linger much past Feb. 1, which allowed us to get an early start … essential for success.

The experts at Texas A&M place mid-March as the start of tomato planting season, which coincides with the last average frost date. Planting them early is always a risk but rewards are plentiful if you can protect them from late season freezes and frosts. This means more fruit set before the arrival of warm weather, which takes such a toll on large fruit production.

What kind of tomatoes should you plant? There are a myriad of varieties, but first you have to choose from two main categories: hybrids, and heirlooms.

Heirloom tomatoes are the  tried and true, older varieties known for their rich flavors, their colors, and their shapes. They are open pollinated and their seeds are viable from year to year. Their seeds can be saved and re-planted.

The advantage of saving and re-growing seeds is that a particular variety will become used to the local climate and conditions. A disadvantage? Many heirlooms don’t have the built-in disease resistance that you find in the new hybrids.

My favorite heirloom is Cherokee Purple. Absolutely the best tomato I have ever eaten. Large, dark, meaty, and very rich.

However there are many to choose from that approach the greatness of the Cherokee, including Brandywine, Green Zebra, Homestead, Arkansas Traveler, Black Krim, Mortgage Lifter, and Bloody Butcher.

Hybrid tomatoes are selected crosses that do not hold true when the seed is saved and replanted. Hybrids are bred for disease resistance, color, size, uniformity, high temperature fruit set, and production. Many of the new hybrids claim yields  in excess of 30 pounds per bush.

The top hybrids for this area are Celebrity, Phoenix, BHN 444, BHN 602, Tycoon, Valley Girl, Big Boy, Better Boy, Solar Fire, Solar Flare, Surefire, and Heatwave.

Celebrity tomato, a hybrid produced in Colin Wyatts backyard in 1984, has been the most popular variety for nearly 30 years.

BHN 602 was the hybrid tomato released in the spring of 2012. 602 averaged 12 to 14 oz. per fruit and was a prolific producer at It’s About Thyme’s test garden. They produced well and were flavorful.

The new hybrid for this year is Tigress. It’s described as ‘a reliable medium fruited heat-setting slicer with the potential of setting 30 pounds of high quality fruit with excellent sugar to acid flavor.’ Tigress is resistant to tomato spotted wilt virus and tomato yellow leaf curl virus.

A good strategy is to plant a mixture: heirlooms for flavor, and hybrids for production (and flavor). And don’t forget to plant plenty of cherry tomatoes. They never fail to set in the heat and produce worlds of fruit. My favorites are Julliet and Sun Gold.

Happy tomato gardening everyone!

If you have a gardening question, send it to me via email:  iathyme@yahoo.com. (Please put ‘Ask Chris Winslow’ in the subject line.) Or mail your letter or postcard to: Ask Chris Winslow. It’s About Thyme: 11726 Manchaca Road, Austin, TX 78748

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