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Thoughts for Tomato Planting Day

Toughest choice: Which varieties to plant?

Row of tomato plants with straw mulch
Tomato transplants benefit from some sturdy support
(put it in early!) and plenty of mulch. (Photo:
Kathy Morrison)

Happy Tomato Planting Day! And indeed, this day – and the whole week – are perfect for planting tomatoes, Sacramento’s favorite crop.

In fact, tomatoes rate as the favorite home-grown crop of backyard farmers nationwide. (And everybody everywhere probably thinks their tomatoes taste best.)

Our local (unofficial) Tomato Day was the brainchild of longtime radio (now podcast) host "Farmer Fred" Hoffman. Besides lining up with Sacramento’s traditional planting calendar, April 28 also happens to be Farmer Fred’s birthday.

The decision to plant tomatoes is easy; you live in a place that’s perfect for growing tomatoes. Just do it! The hard part? Choosing which varieties you want to plant.

Thanks in part to the popularity of heirloom tomatoes, more than 10,000 named varieties and cultivars of tomatoes are now available in commerce. Local nurseries stock seedlings in dozens of varieties. From seed, thousands more are available online.

Some varieties are bulletproof, dependably producing summer after summer – regardless of the weather. Among those are Early Girl (a versatile medium red, round hybrid) and Juliet (a heat-tolerant mini-Roma that’s one of the longest lasting producers in any garden). Sungold – winner of countless taste tests for its super sweetness – usually is reliable, too, but last year’s weird weather shut down many local Sungold vines before they ever hit their stride.

Farmer Fred suggests sticking to varieties that can tolerate dry and hot conditions – especially since it looks like Sacramento will be in for a drought-like summer. His picks include Ace and Ace 55, Better Boy, Celebrity, Lemon Boy, Beefmaster, Big Beef, Supersteak and Whopper.

(Psst! Here's a tip from our resident tomato head, Kathy Morrison: If you don't have much room, and are looking at a summer of limited water, put in at least one red cherry tomato plant. Cherry-size tomatoes tend to do well even in bad years, and they still have that great homegrown tomato taste. Try Sweet Chelsea if you can find it; Sweetie, Gardener's Delight (aka Sugar Lump) or Super Sweet 100 also are good choices.)

Which tomatoes do professional growers pick when their livelihood depends on finicky heirlooms?

Profitable Plants Digest, a publication devoted to farmers market growers, picked its top six heirlooms last summer. Its choices (in order): Black from Tula (a Russian tomato with a deep mahogany color and rich flavor); Costoluto Genovese (Thomas Jefferson grew this deeply-fluted Italian tomato and it’s still a classic); Green Zebra (chef Alice Waters helped make this striped and tangy green and gold tomato popular); Stupice (this early producer matures in just 52 days); Brandywine (this classic takes patience – 90 days to maturity – but it’s another taste winner); and Amy’s Sugar Gem (another early producer, it yields big clusters of golf ball-size, extra-sweet fruit).


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For week of Dec. 10:

Take advantage of these dry but crisp conditions. It’s time to get out the rake!

* Rake leaves away from storm drains and keep gutters clear.

* Fallen leaves can be used for mulch and compost. Chop up large leaves with a couple of passes with a lawn mower.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they’re dormant. Without their foliage, trees are easier to prune.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Make sure to take frost precautions with new transplants and sensitive plants. Mulch, water and cover tender plants in the late afternoon to retain warmth.

* Succulent plants are at particular risk if temperatures drop below freezing. Don’t water succulents before frost; cover instead. Use cloth sheets, not plastic. Make sure to remove coverings during the day.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eaves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Plant garlic (December's the last chance -- the ground is getting cold!) and onions for harvest in summer.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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