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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 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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