Oh, those jewels of the garden, so sought after, so amazingly delicious! Nothing beats a juicy red tomato and nothing says, “I am a successful gardener”, than having someone in front of you having their own tomato enjoying moment with juice dripping down their chin, that they don’t even notice! On the down side, nothing says failure to a gardener, than putting A LOT of work into tomatoes to have NOTHING to show for it! One year I planted heirloom tomatoes. I bought into the feel good, tastes better, saving seed, sustainable pitch from a website that was probably in CALIFORNIA! In reality, after all that WORK, I got NOTHING. Let me repeat that, NOTHING! I realize I am shouting at you with words here. Sorry, but the disappointment after nurturing seed under grow lights, planting, fertilizing, watering and foliar feeding these plants was palatable! Like I could taste the failure in my mouth,NOT a juicy sweet tomato in my mouth, kind of palatable! Turns out, we here in Dallas Texas, have a VERY challenging tomato growing climate. Here in North Texas we have a VERY short spring growing season, because tomatoes will set fruit when it is nice and pleasant out. We all know that here in Dallas, it goes from nice and pleasant to dang hot and back and forth in a few days time. I bet there is some old timer that knows a heirloom tomato plant that is well adapted to North Texas. If you know of such a person, please introduce us. I am prepared to drive copious amounts of miles to meet them and glean from their wisdom. In the meantime I am going to stick to hybrid tomato varieties so I can actually get some of those delicious fruits to eat. So far the consensus from the experts is that if someone is online bragging about getting a huge heirloom tomato crop, then they are NOT in North Texas. People who know how to grow tomatoes, like my friend Sam, also steer people away from the huge beefsteak slicers. Again NOT a Texas thang! Stick with the medium or cherry kind.
Believe it or not, if you don’t have your tomatoes in the ground now, you are late! In North Texas it is important to remember this phrase; plant and be prepared to protect. PPP. Because of our short tomato growing season, we need to plant before the chance of the last freeze on April 15th and be prepared to protect our baby tomatoes. How do we do this? One way is empty milk jugs. Rinse out and save those gallon milk jugs,with lids on, so that you can cut the bottoms off and press down over your tomato plant in case of a below freezing night.
If you planted your tomato plants on March 1st and they are too large to fit under a milk jug, then congratulations you will likely be the first in your neighborhood to enjoy the fruits of your preparedness! Think 5 gallon buckets to protect them. You can get these for free from lots of different restaurants. You might start by asking at your local donut shop. Be prepared though! Don’t wait till the night of a freeze! Having a tomato grower in their local donut shop, on their knees, begging for 5 gallon buckets is NEVER pretty and might get a visit from your friendly local peace keepers. Let me just say, in my defense, that while I might have been a tad insistent and desperate, there was a good size language gap. I, to this day, I am not clear on what she thought I was asking for, but when the Asian lady behind the counter indicated that I should sit down and wait, I had NO idea that it was for the cops to arrive. Furthermore, If you try to bribe a police officer with the promise of juicy ripe tomatoes, you need to have the actual tomatoes there in your hands to tempt him. Any hoo, what’s in the past, is in the past, back to Spring tomato planting.
What I am planting this year? “Super Fantastic” ,truly lived up to it’s name last year, which because of the super wet Spring and hotter than hell Summer, was a challenging tomato growing year. We harvested A LOT of these round red delicious fruits! It is a indeterminate variety so after our ,got to share with all the neighbors harvest, in the Spring, we had a good Fall harvest of mostly green tomatoes, but it could be a whole different ball game this year depending on the Summer/Fall weather. I found this variety at North Haven Gardens.
Definitions of indeterminate and Determinate to follow:
Indeterminate-Is a vining tomato plant that produces well into the Spring/early Summer and then after the hot summer months produces again in the Fall. Grows VERY large, needing strong support to get it through the seasons. See how I support these huge vines below.
Determinate- A bushier plant that will produce all at once in early Summer. Good for someone who is prepared to turn their crop into tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes ect. Meaning you will get your bounty all at once! This plant is then pulled before the hotter than hell period. You can start again with fresh plants around the forth of July for a Fall harvest. Trust me, DON’T try to nurture this plant through the hot Summer time, it will NOT make it. North Haven Gardens is one of the only plant stores that sell new determinate varieties in July.
Just a quick note; The more abbreviated letters after a tomato’s name, the more resistant to disease it is. This is a whole different post, but you might see:V, N, FF, TSWV. If you are interested in learning more I have included a link to an article here.
Last year my friend Sam, who seriously knows how to grow tomatoes, taught me how to build a “fence for my tomatoes.” We went to Tractor Supply Company and bought a 16 ft cattle panel. We took the pick up truck and cut it right there in the parking lot. You will need some heavy duty cutters with you. Unless you are prepared to bat your eyelashes and ask sweetly for assistance. Don’t forget your tape measure. We cut each panel to fit our 8ft raised beds, loaded them in the bed of the truck and off we went. Four heavy duty green posts and some bailing wire are also needed. When we installed them in the beds we put a green tee post at each end wiring the cattle panel securely. To add additional support in our Texas wind we put four screws in the wooden ends of each bed and ran the wire from the cattle panels and around the screws on either side. We planted our tomato plants on one side and wove the new growth through the large squares in the panel giving plenty of space to harvest tomatoes. Really beats the traditional tomato cages for sure. On the other side we planted bell peppers, which can burn in the sun, so did well in the shade of the tomatoes.
The other tomatoes that do VERY well here are the beloved cherry types. My kids LOVED popping these tart orbs into their mouths as they helped in the garden. I planted Sweet 100 last year, which left me and my neighbors with LOTS of cherry tomatoes. I did not stake it properly however, which resulted in a tomato sprawl of magnificent proportions! I could not find this variety this year so I went with Sungold, which I hear is the ONLY tomato that keeps producing into the summer heat. I will be using the above method for supporting ALL my tomatoes this year, even my cherries. I also planted Juliet, which I have seen do great things at the community garden. I slipped in a Heirloom Gold Pear cherry tomato because I have never tasted anything sweeter. I love cherry tomatoes so much that I almost stopped growing regular size tomatoes altogether. If it hadn’t been for my gardening friend Sam showing me how to grow tomatoes I would have given up on them.
Boy I am glad I invited him to garden with me in my front yard garden. Goes to show how wonderful things can happen when you open yourself up to community!
Tomatoes are heavy feeders so some organic fertilizer mixed into the planting hole is a good start,1/4 cup for now. I included some meal worm frass(poop) ,1/4 cup, for phosphorous(bloom making) and a ring around each plant of Epsom salts. Meal worm frass is awesome fertilizer as it promotes root growth, bloom set and has lots of micro organisms for the soil health.If you want to raise meal worms see here. If you have chickens, they LOVE them and you can use the frass for your garden.
Why a ring of Epsom salts? A healthy growing tomato plant uses up lots of magnesium in the growing / production process. Maintaining the magnesium at the right levels can be accomplished with regular applications of Epsom salt. The results… more blooms, less blossom rot, more fruit, stronger plants, deeper green color, along with taster, sweeter tomatoes.
I also will add earth worm castings around each plant when I harvest my vermicomposting bin. If you want to know how to get started with earthworms see here. This of course is assuming that you are growing in a raised bed with lots of composted manure added. It is no surprise that I am a huge fan of raised beds in our area. I always say; “I wonder how many plows the settlers broke in this Texas clay soil before they decided to raise some cattle!” If you want to get started with a raised bed see how here.
Dreaming about that juicy red tomato on a plate with basil, mozzarella and olive oil! Making that a reality starts with what you do now. So get planting, it will be worth every scrumptious bite!