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Tomato report card: Some hits, but mostly misses

Big Mama was a winner again this year. This oversize Roma-style tomato is a hybrid from Burpee and worth hunting down. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)
Strange weather patterns impact crops for backyard growers, farmers

How was your season in the Big Tomato? If you’re like most gardeners or farmers, it’s likely still going on.

With our current mild fall weather, healthy tomato plants may keep producing through the holidays.

“This will be a long tomato season,” noted radio host Farmer Fred Hoffman, who in late September still had many green tomatoes in his Folsom garden. “I predict tomato salads at every Thanksgiving dinner table.”

In mid-October, I still have several green tomatoes and many flowers on my tomato vines. Will those flowers come to fruition? The little Juliets, yes. The larger toms? Probably not.

Farmer Fred Hoffman was still harvesting plenty of
ripe tomatoes in September.
(Photo: Fred Hoffman)
Better late than never. For many tomato growers, it was a bummer summer.

A combination of weather conditions – too cold and wet early, too hot late – seemed to confuse plants. Instead of setting a steady supply of fruit, some tomato vines just sulked.

“Rainy weather and cooler temperatures delayed planting and slowed crop growth in early spring,” according to the USDA California Processing Tomato Report. “There were also concerns that high temperatures in July and August, as well as disease pressure, has adversely impacted the crop.”

If you noticed fewer tomato trucks on the freeway in August, you were correct. By Labor Day, tomato shipments were running 21.1 % behind 2018, reports the Processing Tomato Advisory Board. Farmers expected to pick up some slack in September and October, but the total California processing tomato crop is forecast to be down 4.1 percent from last year.

Processing tomatoes are supposed to be the easy ones to grow. If they’re having difficulty, what about heirlooms? This season elicited more groans than big smiles.

“This was not a good year for me,” said Peter Frichette, Sacramento’s homegrown tomato king. “Only one person that I have spoken with said that he had a good year. Most others just said that it seemed below average.”

Frichette, whose Greenhaven garden usually produces bushels of tomatoes, saw two of his usually reliable Early Girls shut down before they ever got going. A farmer friend “attributed this to a storm that occurred early on in the plants’ life that fooled them into thinking that it was already winter,” Frichette said.

“It’s been a weird year,” said Michelle Jackson, who battled bugs and wilt all summer. Her Brandy Boy yielded just two tomatoes, although her Sun Gold and Sweet 100 produced several quarts of cherry tomatoes.

Kitty Bolte planted a dozen varieties and got a wide range of results. “I had good luck with Amish Paste and the cherries,” she said. “Brandywines did terribly, (they) rotted before they ripened. San Marzanos were OK, but seemed more prone to blossom end rot than the Amish Paste. All the others were fun and flavorful, but not especially prolific.”

The difference between few tomatoes and a decent crop seemed to come down to variety. Plants in the same garden bore vastly different harvests.

“Persimmon (an orange heirloom tomato) had absolutely zero tomatoes,” said South Land Park’s Ken Wing, who pulled the plant on Labor Day. “My other varieties – Juliet, Jetsetter F1 and Yellow Pear – did great.”

By contrast, Colene Rauh of Orangevale had a great tomato year. “By far, our favorite tomato – and it grew better than ever this year – is the Bull’s Heart,” she said. “Great for sauces, sandwiches, salads; you name it. As far as the cherry-type tomatoes, our other favorite is Sun Sugar; very prolific. One year, when we didn’t get a freeze, they grew into January!”

As for my own Midtown tomato patch, First Prize lived up to its name. That one vine produced at least 40 pounds of big firm slicers, some weighing more than 16 ounces. That plant is still setting fruit.

Big Mama, a Roma style, is still producing, too. Big Boy and Better Boy both had respectable yields. Juliet, as always, was consistent. Limony is trying to squeeze out one more sweet yellow tomato.

So, on this tomato report card, I’m tempted to grade this season as incomplete. Otherwise, I’d give it a C-plus. Except for First Prize; it’s a solid A all the way.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist for week of April 7

The warm wave coming this week will shift weeds into overdrive. Get to work!

* Weed, weed, weed! Whack them before they flower.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden is really hungry. Feed shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash. Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias. Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom. April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce and cabbage seedlings.

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