Romancing the Tomato

by Jessica Robertson • Photography by Jenna Northcutt

March is possibly my favorite time of year in the Central Texas garden. Spring starts to take a foothold with warmer days, which means warmer soil and the perfect time to plant tomatoes. If you were prepared enough to start your tomato seeds in late December, then hats off to you. But if not, transplants aplenty can be found in local garden centers. Of course, seeing that bench of tomato transplants lined up like little soldiers is a mystical and sometimes overwhelming sight. If you’re like me, you usually end up with more than you have space for in the garden. It comes easier for a rare few, like my husband, who has a degree in horticulture and somehow dislikes fresh tomatoes. When asked which ones I should plant, his quick reply is, “Whichever ones make the best baseball practice!”

So, how do you grow the perfect tomato? The answer is not simple, but if some basic guidelines are followed, you should be eating perfection by early summer.

True Love Starts Early. Purchase the earliest transplants available and then plant them into larger pots using half potting soil and half worm castings (my signature secret). Provide lots of sun and warmth and bring them inside when cold temperatures threaten. This allows the plant to create a larger root system for quick establishment in the garden after the threat of frost is over—around mid-March in the Austin area.

Love and Adore the Soil. If there’s only one thing to learn about gardening, let it be my soil mantra: “Grow your soil and the plants will grow themselves.” Add quality, locally produced compost to the soil, and amend with an organic starting fertilizer that contains mycorrhizal fungi and humate. This will go a long way toward producing healthy plants and abundant fruit with few problems. A 2006 study published in Scientia Horticulturae found that tomatoes inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi have a higher uptake of nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as fruit yields between 20- and 30-percent higher in drought-stress conditions. Mycorrhizal fungi benefit plants in many ways, but the most relevant to our Texas growing conditions is their ability to act as nature’s water conservationists.

Heirloom or Hybrid? Some believe that heirlooms taste better than hybrids. I think a blind taste test would reveal that even The Tomato Man—one of my favorite customers who takes his tomatoes seriously—wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the two. In my opinion, the best tasting tomato is the fresh one from the garden. And although tasty and highly coveted in the culinary world, heirloom varieties are challenging to grow in Texas because the temperature gets hot very quickly. In my experience, these varieties do not produce well in the spring. I have much better success with heirloom crop yields in the fall garden, but I still recommend planting a few of both kinds in spring.

Determinate or Indeterminate Varieties? Determinate varieties grow to a certain size, set flowers and fruit at one time and then they are done. Many of the “heat-resistant” tomatoes are determinate—staying more compact and having the advantage of setting fruit before the temperature gets hot. They also double as great varieties for fall planting, because you can harvest before our first frosts arrive. However, indeterminate varieties continue to grow and set fruit over an extended period of time, and have more days to maturity to produce what I like to call “Texas-sized” tomato plants. A nice trick is to cut back indeterminate tomatoes on July 4th by about two-thirds and fertilize heavily. Don’t be afraid! New, lush vegetative growth will start setting fruit about the time we cool off in the fall.

Tomato Cuddling: Mulching is a Must! Mulching evens out soil moisture, which prevents cracking caused by extreme moisture fluctuations. Mulching also prevents pathogens in the soil from being splashed onto the lower leaves during heavy spring rains or overhead watering. Be careful not to mulch too early as it can slow important soil warming in the spring.

Jessica’s 2015 Top 10 Tomato Varieties
1. Porter Improved - Ind.
2. Yellow Pear Heirloom - Ind.
3. Solar Fire - Det.
4. Tycoon - Det.
5. Brandy Boy Hybrid - Ind.
6. SteakHouse Hybrid - Ind.
7. Sun Gold - Ind.
8. Phoenix Hot-Set - Det.
9. Cherokee Purple Heirloom - Ind.
10. Celebrity - Semi-Det.
Ind. = Indeterminate Det. = Determinate