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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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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Feb. 5

Make the most of sunny days and get winter tasks done:

* This is the last chance to spray fruit trees before they bloom. Treat peach and nectarine trees with copper-based fungicide. Spray apricot trees at bud swell to prevent brown rot. Apply horticultural oil to control scale, mites and aphids on fruit trees soon after a rain. But remember: Oils need at least 24 hours to dry to be effective. Don’t spray during foggy weather or when rain is forecast.

* Feed spring-blooming shrubs and fall-planted perennials with slow-release fertilizer. Feed mature trees and shrubs after spring growth starts.

* Finish pruning roses and deciduous trees.

* Remove aphids from blooming bulbs with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap.

* Fertilize strawberries and asparagus.

* Transplant or direct-seed several flowers, including snapdragon, candytuft, lilies, astilbe, larkspur, Shasta and painted daisies, stocks, bleeding heart and coral bells.

* In the vegetable garden, plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers, and strawberry and rhubarb roots.

* Transplant cabbage and its close cousins – broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts – as well as lettuce (both loose leaf and head).

* Plant artichokes, asparagus and horseradish from root divisions.

* Plant potatoes from tubers and onions from sets (small bulbs). The onions will sprout quickly and can be used as green onions in March.

* From seed, plant beets, chard, lettuce, mustard, peas, radishes and turnips.

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