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Sunday is Sacramento's unofficial Tomato Planting Day

Cherry tomatoes are a good choice for new gardeners, since they tend
to do well no matter what the weather does. This variety is Isis Candy.
(Photo: Kathy Morrison)
Plus: 3 frequently asked questions about growing tomatoes

Thanks to the late rainy season, this Sunday should be the perfect day to plant your tomato garden. For years now, "Farmer Fred" Hoffman has been touting April 28 as Sacramento's unofficial Tomato Planting Day. (The fact that it's also his birthday doesn't hurt.)

But during recent drought years, tomato growers might have found that an earlier planting day made more sense, though getting Fred to change his birthday might have been a problem.

The key to all this is not how warm the air is, but how warm the soil is. Tomatoes planted in cold soil will just sit there, sulking.

Here's my very short course in tomato planting: Choose a spot with full sun for at least 6 hours. Prep your soil by working in compost. Plant the tomatoes deeply, because new roots will grow all along the buried stem. Water deeply and consistently but don’t overwater -- every 4 or 5 days after the plants are established. Mulch around the plants but not right next to the stem. And keep those vines off the ground with a cage or trellis; they’ll be healthier for it.

FAQ # 1: What are the best tomatoes to grow in our area?

The better question, as Fred has noted, is "What tomatoes can't you grow in our area?"

Thanks to long, dry summers with mild nights, Sacramento, aka "Sackatomatoes," is prime climate for tomatoes, and of course peppers and eggplant, too. Think Mediterranean. We generally don't have to worry about early blight or late blight, which plague tomato growers in more humid climates.

There are 15,000 known varieties of tomatoes, both hybrids and heirlooms. So forget about trying them all. Limit yourself to 1,000, or maybe 20. Or something in between.

But in this area, do stay away from "short-season" varieties, unless you're planting in mid-summer for a fall harvest. Some black tomatoes have a hard time with our heat, but my best tomato last year was Carbon, a big purply-black variety. So you never can be sure -- and the weather can throw in surprises for varieties you thought were "sure things."

If you're a new tomato gardener, I'd recommend one or two cherry tomato plants, and the rest hybrids. Hybrids are the standards of our tomato gardens, productive and mostly disease-resistant. Early Girl, Brandy Boy and Lemon Boy all do well here -- as do any other variety with "Boy" or "Girl" in the name.

Also, look for AAS winners such as Big Beef and Juliet -- they've been tested all over the country, and those two are among my favorites. Other people swear by Celebrity, Ace or Champion -- it just depends on what you've tried and liked.

Read the tags, and know whether your tomato is an indeterminate (bears tomatoes all season) or determinate (mostly produces one crop), and what the expected crop timeline is. Heirlooms generally are late-season producers, so don't expect them to produce tomatoes for July 4.

FAQ # 2: Can I grow tomatoes in containers?

Yes. However, and this is important, many tomatoes do not do well in containers. Tomatoes when they're happy put down huge, long roots, and you'd need an 5-foot-tall container to do right by some of them. Look for bush varieties, such as Better Bush or Bush Early Girl, for optimum yield. Some cherry tomatoes will work -- but you just have to experiment to discover which ones. There are some great dwarf cherries, which get to be only 18 inches tall, but they're hard to find as plants and generally have to be started from seed.

Forget about growing heirloom tomatoes in containers, since heirlooms are finicky even when they're in the ground.

The other important point about tomatoes in containers is that they dry out quicker, and you'll have to do more frequent watering and fertilizing, since the nutrients will leach out of the container.

FAQ # 3: What should I grow with my tomatoes?

You want to encourage pollinators to visit your tomato blossoms, so plant things they like. Basil, dill and lavender are great choices among herbs. Sunflowers are gorgeous, and bring in the bees and birds. (Those birds help by gobbling pests such as crickets, grasshoppers and tomato hornworms.) Zinnias and cosmos are great for butterflies and bees. Some people love to put in marigolds, but the fragrance bothers me, so I skip them. Native plants such as salvias also entice pollinators.

Happy planting!


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

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

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

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

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

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

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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