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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 March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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