After surviving one of the coldest and driest Januarys that I can remember, my thoughts are turning to the upcoming spring season, and in particular to America’s favorite backyard vegetable, the tomato.
To be successful, gardeners need to choose the right tomato for their needs, plant it at the right time of year, and put it in the right kind of soil.
What to plant: There are hundreds of tomato varieties to choose from. Heirlooms or hybrids? Determinate or indeterminate growth types? Cherries or beefsteak sandwich size? Quantity verses quality?
Let’s start by defining some tomato terms. (It can get confusing!)
Heirloom tomatoes are strains that have been reproduced for generations without cross-breeding. Hybrids, on the other hand, are a cross between two different varieties.
Most gardeners believe that heirlooms taste the best. Almost all heirlooms are indeterminate vining types that grow and bloom from spring to fall.
This may sound appealing from a production standpoint, but our central Texas summers with 95 degrees plus days and 75 degree nights keep these large fruited varieties from setting. This means production from June through the first half of September is limited.
Some flavorful heirloom varieties to look for are Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Green Copia, Bumble Bee, Arkansas Traveler, Black Krim, Mister Stripey, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, and Paul Robeson. I’ll have to admit, Cherokee Purple is the best tasting tomato that I have ever eaten.
On the quantity side you have hybrid crosses that are determinate varieties that grow fast and produce lots of flowers and fruits before heat sets in. All hybrids have effective disease prevention built into their genetics. Hybrids are not GMO. They are selected crosses from parents that have desirable traits.
Some of the best and most productive hybrids are the past and present Rodeo tomatoes. Every year the best new tomato hybrid for Central Texas is released at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in mid-February.
This year’s Rodeo winner is called Sunbrite. This delicious tomato is a reliable, large-fruited, beefsteak slicer with the potential for producing upwards of 25 pounds of high quality fruit.
Past Rodeo varieties to look for are BHN 602, BHN 444, Valleycat, Bobcat, Red Deuce, Tycoon, and HM 1823.
Last spring’s planting of BHN 602 produced an astonishing 61.5 pounds of fruit, while HM 1823 averaged over 15 pounds.
When to plant: This is very important. Getting them out early before heat sets in is critical. Most folks wait till mid-March, when the average freeze and frost is behind us.
Sam Lemming of Buda, the most successful tomato grower I know, plants his transplants early to mid-February and covers them when there are frosts and freezes. He manages to get tons of fruit to set before the heat of mid-May sets in. (By the way, Sam’s favorite all time tomato is Celebrity. Shhh! Trade secret!)
Where to plant: a sunny, well-drained location is super-important. Your plants will require six to seven hours of direct sun at a minimum. Also, to get a bumper crop, you will need to mix in tons of organic soil conditioner and compost. Our favorite is Happy Frog Soil Conditioner, which comes with earth worm castings, bat guano, beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizae.
If you mix this soil conditioner into your vegetable bed with added dried or liquid molasses, you will then activate the soil microbes.
Don’t forget to add some organic slow-release fertilizer to help sustain growth. Our garden sages David and Dwight favor Ladybug 8-2-4 and Happy Frog Tomato and Vegetable blend 7-4-5.
Also add some dolomite lime to the soil to keep calcium levels high. This will protect your fruit from the dreaded blossom end rot.
Whatever route you choose, I hope this will be your best tomato spring ever. Happy gardening everyone!
If you have a question for Chris, send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or mail a postcard to It’s About Thyme 11726 Manchaca Road, Austin, TX 78748 www.itsaboutthyme.com.