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Tomato varieties to count on -- and some experiments

Narrowing down options can be tough

Juliets on the vine
These Juliets are such great tomatoes: Equally delicious fresh or cooked. They also make excellent oven-dried tomatoes for snacks or winter cooking. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

This functions as a bonus, because we celebrated our 1,000th post earlier today.

It's seed-starting season for summer gardens, and I wanted to be sure to get this topic in before February runs out.

Tomatoes are my jam, so to speak, so I have strong opinions about reliable producers. But that doesn't stop me from trying new varieties every year, in hopes of adding one or two to the lineup of must-plants.

Here are my Top 5 Reliable Tomatoes for Sacramento Summers:

-- Juliet. Technically a cherry tomato, it is a vigorous grower all season, producing perfectly balanced oval fruit that stay well on the vine. This is usually the last tomato plant I pull out at the end of the year.

-- Big Mama. This Burpee product joined my lineup a few years ago, by far the best of my many attempts at growing a decent sauce tomato. This is a big one indeed, and it produces well. Like many paste tomatoes, it shows a bit of blossom end rot early, but not so much to be a problem and it soon clears up.

-- Big Beef. The best of the bigger hybrid reds that I've found, it's an All America Selections winner, which means it grows well in all climates, including ours.

-- Chef's Choice Orange. There is a whole colorful list of "Chef's Choice" tomatoes, all named AAS winners a few years ago. The orange is my favorite so far; I'm also growing the red one this year (see below). The pink one I tried a few seasons was just so-so, but Chef's Choice Orange deserves a prize.

-- Lemon Boy. Another hybrid I've grown for many years, it's a clear yellow medium tomato that looks beautiful in salads.

Other varieties that rotate in and out of my repertoire include AAA Sweet Solano, Azoychka, Brandy Boy, First Prize, Cherokee Carbon and regular Carbon.

Now for some of this year's experiments:

-- Brad's Atomic Grape. A creation of Brad Gates at Wild Boar Farms , this grape-type tomato has been around for awhile, and I finally decided to give it a try. It looks like Juliet in shape, but it's Juliet's younger hippie sister in a tie-dyed T-shirt. Striped purple, red, yellow and green in its photos, it also is said to have a great sweet flavor.

-- Chef's Choice Red. Sibling of my favorite orange variety, it's also an AAS winner. Red, round and indeterminate -- right up my alley.

-- Tasty Pink. Totally Tomatoes included this big pink beefsteak as a bonus seed packet with my order, so I thought I'd give it a try. I'm less fond of open-pollinated tomatoes this days, because our heat is not kind to them, but they do taste so good!

-- Lucid Gem. This is my year for odd-colored tomatoes, I guess. Another of Brad Gates' creations, it's a salad-size tomato that ripens red/yellow/orange, but develops purple-black splashes on the skin.

-- Sungold Select. This really is an experiment, because I'm asking this tomato to take the place of the popular Sungold or Sun Sugar (I've grown both) in my garden. My husband loves little yellow-orange tomatoes, and I hope this Brad Gates cherry tomato can replace a long-established favorite. But after the Sungold disasters of last summer locally, I figured it was worth a shot to find a better replacement.

Those are the biggest leaps. Let us know what you're growing this year, especially anything you're experimenting with!


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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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