In Like a Lion

By Carol Ann Sayle 
Photography by Carol Ann Sayle

Oh my, the pace of growing and harvesting vegetables quickens, and to complicate matters, it’s March, the month we can’t completely trust. The tomatoes are planted; they look so jaunty in the bright sunlight! We go to bed dreaming of ripe orbs in May, and in the middle of the last dream, a cold front silently skulks in and freezes the pre-dawn dew. Frost-coated leaves, hit by the morning sun, blacken beyond redemption; the plants die. Try again! It’s still early!

And we must. Tomato aficionados know there’s nothing better than a Texas tomato grown in fertile soil, full sun and with great love. The fruits are so prized by my co-farmer and spouse, Larry Butler, that he refuses to plant as early as some do.

“I’m not in a hurry,” he says, “because the tomato is going to ripen best when the sun is warm. If it matures in cool weather, the flavor and texture will not be great.”

He knows flavor and texture. On a hot summer day he will consume a dozen tomatoes, easily. Being the first with a tomato harvest is not important to him, but having tasty tomatoes is, and taste depends on the weather.

March, abounding with lettuces, leeks, spring onions and the start of strawberries, is the fickle gateway month to the warm and sunny season that tomatoes desire. From March to early-July in Central Texas, growers will be pushing tomato transplants into diligently composted soils fertilized with great expectations.

The life of any March-planted tomato, however, began about six weeks earlier, when the seeds were sown in flats, cells or pots. They’ll need to live in a greenhouse or by a warm, very sunny window to become suitable transplants. Meanwhile, the grower will need considerable patience, as well as optimism.

We plant our determinate tomato transplants (those that have primary and secondary stems that end in flower buds and stop growing: Early Girl, Celebrity and Roma) in early March, but the indeterminate ones (heirlooms and cherries) wait until late March.

Once planted outside, the challenges intensify. Tomatoes need protection from spring cold snaps that visit no matter how balmy the weather was the day before. At the farm, we place rebar arcs over the planting beds, connecting the steel with baling twine or wire to help support the spun-polyester fabric row cover. If the garden is small, a tomato basket and a sacrificial white bed sheet will work, as well. Avoid plastic covers unless they are the self-ventilating kind, as they must be removed daily to prevent an extreme heat buildup that will kill the plants. The final uncovering of the plants should coincide with settled weather, typically mid- to late-April.

Once uncovered, the plants will need vertical support to keep them from becoming ground vines, which they naturally are. As a vine running through your garden, the fruits will rot before you can eat them, depositing seeds for the next generation. You don’t want that, so give them a hand up.

Shorter determinate tomatoes can be encased in wire baskets, typically made from concrete reinforcing wire. Or they can be tied with fabric strips to stakes that are firmly installed next to the plants.

Indeterminate tomatoes will need very tall baskets or metal stakes. For large plantings (we hope for 1,500 heirloom plants this year) the stakes are spaced every six to 10 feet. Sturdy twine, thin electrical wire or lengths of wire fencing can then be stretched from stake to stake to hold the growing plants in a hedge arrangement.

Although it seems like early plantings are problematic, if you cautiously wait until mid-April to plant, you might encounter a summer like in 2008, when May and June’s horrid heat prevented the first fruit sets and caused gardeners to lament few or no tomatoes. In Texas! An abnormal occurrence, but in gardening or farming, as in life, the abnormal is oft the normal. So plant on, as the reward for perseverance and skill guarantees amazing sauces, salads, sandwiches and happy, juice-covered chins.