Everyone loves Tomatoes!
...for different reasons:
salads, salsas, sauces, garnish.
Written for the Davis Enterprise, March 22, 2001
I can give you lots of information about tomatoes, but I can't tell you which one you'll like!
Our most popular vegetable (which is really a fruit) grows so well in the Valley that anyone with a sunny back yard (at least 4 hours of direct sun) can produce wonderful fruit all summer long.
Where and how to grow tomatoes.
They like as much sun as possible, soil that drains well, and deep, infrequent waterings. Don't feed them too often, or else you'll get lots of foliage and less fruit. The flavor will be richer and more concentrated if you water less and less often as the vines mature, but water deeply when you do. If you only have enough room for them in pots, choose a dwarf type such as Ace, Roma, or Patio.
When to plant tomatoes.
Night temperatures should be consistently above 50F. The soil should be workable (not too soggy) and warm. Typically this is mid-April or even as late as early May. Put on some shorts (if you're modest!) and go out in the early morning. Sit on the ground. Are you comfortable? No? Then they won't be either.
If you want to get a head start, set up some Walls-O-Water over some soil that you've turned, and then plant the tomatoes a few days later. We're not worried about frost at this point, but cool nights will stunt the roots.
How to train tomatoes.
They are very deep-rooted (up to 4' deep!), unlike most of your summer vegetables. The vines range from 2' tall (Roma) to 4' (determinate, such as Ace), to 6' (semi-determinate, such as Celebrity) to 8'+ (indeterminate, such as Early Girl, Better Boy), to huge (most cherry tomatoes grow to more than 10'!).
They need to be staked or caged. An efficient cage for larger types is a tube of concrete wire (6" grid--ask at the hardware store) about 3' in diameter and 6 - 8' high, staked securely. Stuff the runners back into the cage as the plants grow. As an alternative, they can be planted next to a single stake, and repeatedly tied up onto the stake through the season. Shorter varieties can be planted in tomato cages available at local nurseries, but larger types will outgrow those by midsummer. If allowed to simply run along the ground the fruit which touches the soil is likely to rot. You don't need to prune or pinch tomatoes at all here. Advice in this regard is from colder climates.
Amending the soil is helpful, but not necessary. The roots will establish faster in a soil that is loosened, but that can be accomplished simply by turning the soil and breaking it up. Compost just makes that easier. Overly rich soil leads to lots of vegetative growth, but not necessarily more or better fruit.
Which varieties do well here.
We sell over 60 varieties at our nursery. With thousands of varieties to choose from, it is important to know which produce reliably. Some varieties are more tolerant of our hot summer days and cool nights than others. Most won't set fruit below 55F or above 90F. Beefsteak types won't set above 85F--and it's a rare summer day here that we don't exceed 85F!
What do you do with them?
This may determine which ones you buy. I mostly cook them, so I prefer a tomato with very little juice and a thin skin (Roma, Celebrity). Just like other fruits such as peaches and apricots, most people prefer fresh tomatoes with a good balance of acid and sugar. When we refer to a fruit as "low-acid" we mean it's sweet, but it may not have rich flavor. The texture can be important: for sandwiches (and fast-food burgers) we want firm tomatoes that don't get mushy, but home gardeners usually don't want fruit with lots of connective tissue.
There are regional differences.
Midwesterners ask for Beefsteak types, because that is what they grew up with: large fruit with sweet flavor, pretty good acid content, and lots of juice. The large amount of connective tissue may give a mealy texture which isn't undesirable in a sandwich, but might be unpleasant in a salad. Folks from New England complain that our tomatoes are "sour"--they are used to low-acid varieties because these are often suitable to short growing seasons, and the frequent summer rains in those climates lead to fruit that we consider bland and watery! We really do live in one of the best climates for growing tomatoes, with a long growing season and plenty of warmth to develop rich flavor.
Which ones taste best?
Natalie is our family tomato taste expert. She actually worked as a professional tomato taste tester years ago in the UCD Food Science Dept., and learned to discern fruits with a good balance of acid and sugar. What does she say? In this busy spring I managed to get her to sit down and quizzed her about some of the common varieties and a few of the heirloom and gourmet types becoming available. Her comments are in quotes; my comments follow hers.
- Ace: "Dependable, sets in a wide range of temperatures. Heavy on tomato flavor. Beautiful fruit, great salad variety, but tough skin. Nice compact plant." Great for small spaces.
- Better Boy: "Similar to Early Girl, but hasn't got the depth of flavor. Very productive." Very heavy fruit set on large vines makes it a great one for sauce production.
- Celebrity: "Very reliable producer. Excellent for slicing. Moderate size plants. FAVORITE TOMATO #2!"
- Champion: Very good flavor, large vine, large fruit, very productive. The largest-fruited type that produces reliably here.
- Early Girl: "FAVORITE TOMATO #1!" This one routinely wins taste tests in California, and produces reliably from early summer into the winter.
- Roma: "Real workhorse of a tomato. Very productive on compact plants which don't need staking. Great flavor, even used fresh. Very reliable. FAVORITE #3!" The best for sauce.
Cherry, yellow, and other varieties:
- Green Zebra: "Delicious, sprightly. Unusually good flavor for a yellow tomato. Pretty." Bizarre looking fruit.
- Husky Gold: "My favorite yellow tomato!"
- Husky Red: "Good flavor. Beautiful little plant. Great for small spaces or containers."
- Lemon Boy: "Early results impressive. Better texture than Golden Jubilee."
- Patio: "Cute little plant. The best for smaller pots. Sweet, firm fruit." Surprisingly productive for an 18" plant.
- SunGold: "YUMMM! My favorite cherry tomato. Dries into candy. Everyone should grow it!" (I think she likes this one�.). One of the best tomatoes ever.
- Sweet 100: "Unbelievably productive. A very good cherry tomato. Kids really love them. Great for salads (and slingshots!)--small enough to eat in one bite (unlike most cherry tomatoes)."
Heirloom and gourmet varieties--
we continue to try the many varieties available. This is by no means a definitive listing!
Now you can see why it is hard for me to answer the common spring question: what is your favorite variety? That's like asking me which is my favorite child! I like each for different reasons. We always plant Early Girl and Celebrity for flavor and reliable production over a long season. Floramerica and Champion are also reliable. I always plant several Romas for cooking. The very rich flavor of SunGold has made it a family favorite. We always plant some heirlooms and gourmet types for fun.
- Brandywine: "Very popular, mild flavor. Mealy texture."
- Carmello: "Thin skinned, mealy. More flavorful than Beefsteak types, with better acid/sugar balance."
- Costoluto Genovese: "Impressive; similar to Marmande. Productive."
- Marmande: "Very fruity; acid/sugar balance is great."
- Marval Striped, and Old German (very similar varieties): "Mild, thin-skinned, mealy. Slicing tomato. Sweet."
- Principe Borghese: "I love it! Wildly productive. Excellent depth of flavor. Makes great sauce, though with lots of seeds and skin (strain the sauce)." (I think she likes this one too�.)
Just remember, any tomato you grow in your garden will taste better than the ones you buy in the store!
For descriptions of tomatoes and other summer vegetables available from Cache Creek Nursery, one of our suppliers, Click here!! Call ahead if you want to special order any of the varieties listed.
See also our other articles:
Peppers and tomatoes
Vegetables in Davis
Tomatoes: a primer
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles