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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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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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