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A problem with Mexico in Sacramento

Pete Frichette's Mexico plant may produce
a big tomato yet. (Photo courtesy Pete Frichette)

Not all heirloom varieties thrive in the Big Tomato

Pete Frichette has a reputation to defend. Harvesting hundreds of tomatoes off a single plant or trophy-size 2-pound heirlooms, he earned special status in the Big Tomato as a grower extraordinaire. In addition, he generously shares seedlings as well as recommendations and his abundant crop.

Then, along came Mexico. In his Greenhaven garden, this heirloom variety became such a spectacular flop, he reached out to other gardeners to get their opinions.

What went wrong with Mexico? Was it weather? Smoke? Climate? The wrong seed?

His trials and tribulations over Mexico show that any gardener, even longtime experts, can have underperforming plants. Some varieties do better in different regions. Not every tomato was meant to thrive in California.

This year, Frichette planted Mexico for the first time, ordering the seed off its glowing praise in the variety's description by the seed company. Mexico promised both "large fruit and generous numbers. … Expect steady, continuous production of tomatoes that weigh more than 1 pound throughout the growing season."

Debbie Arrington harvested these smallish tomatoes
from her Mexico plant. They don't at all match the
seed company's description for the variety.
(Photo: Debbie Arrington)
"I wish it were true," Frichette said in a letter to the seed company. "We get kind of competitive out here in California. Most home gardeners want to have the first ripe tomato and then the biggest tomato."

Frichette ordered two packets, which produced 24 healthy seedlings. He kept one and gave the others to gardening friends and avid tomato growers, including myself.

"After a couple of months, I inquired as to their success," he said. "Most of them were kinder than I ever imagined, but it came out later that most of them had yanked the plants after waiting to see the first flowers, which never arrived. They never complained or even kidded me.

"I do enjoy a bit of a reputation as a tomato grower and a tomato sharer here in Sacramento, CA," he added. "The local garden editors have written several articles (regarding) my tomato growing and several have contained pictures. I’ve been referred to as the 'Tomato Baron' and Sacramento's 'Tomato King.' All good until the bomb of the Mexico.

"Needless to say, I have lost a great deal of credence and my taste buds have had their fill of crow. The most tomatoes any of my pals have harvested of the Mexico is three. I also have three."

Meanwhile, Frichette's other big heirlooms -- Aussie and Brandywine, planted on either side of Mexico -- are "doing just fine," he noted. Those varieties have been much more generous -- even the Brandywine.

Mexico started well enough, Frichette told me. On April 18, it was already putting down roots alongside other vines in his tomato beds. The vines easily reached the top of his 7-foot reinforced custom tomato cages.

But this Mexico proved a very stingy 9-foot-6-inch vine.

"The biggest tomato from that vine was just ever so slightly under 16 ounces," he said. "Flavor was OK and solids looked good."

Off the vine that Frichette gave me, I've had two Mexico tomatoes, both a lot smaller than I expected. They were kind of triangular, very solid meat, but under 8 ounces each.

That shape made me wonder: Is it a Mexico or something else? The fruit is described as large and flat in its catalog description. Could it be the wrong seed?

Smoke and weird weather patterns have hampered plenty of tomatoes this summer.

But Frichette's theory is that Mexico needs more humidity. (It's a Midwestern heirloom.) He shared seed from his two packets with a former Sacramento resident who now resides in E. Aurora, N.Y., near Buffalo.

"It rather underlines my concept that the grower should define the climate in which to best grow each cultivar," Frichette said. "These are the seeds from the same packet that I started our Mexicos from. Of all my gifts, his are the only growing; 27 on the vine; only two ripe so far."

Frichette remains hopeful that he'll still see some hefty Mexico tomatoes.

"I do have two more Mexicos on the vine and one of them may come close to 1.5 pounds or more," he said.

Mexico may yet redeem itself.


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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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