Archive for 'Growing Tips'

A Crash Course in S.E. Texas Tomatoes

The Problem with Grocery Store Tomatoes

It’s generally believed that grocery store tomatoes taste so terrible because they aren’t vine ripened. Yet, this is only part of the story.

There are many forces which conspire to drain the flavor right out of the tomatoes you find at your local grocery store. Farmers typically choose varieties which produce over a short window of time (determinate), are disease tolerant, have thick skin, and which stay firm over a long time. Why? So that the fruit survives long distance shipping and storage.  In Florida, tomato quality grades are judged by uniformity of shape, size, and color. Flavor is not a factor at all.

The vast majority of tomatoes are picked green and shipped thousands of miles to an ethylene gas processing facility to forcibly ripen them to a pale pink. Even “vine ripened” tomatoes are picked mostly green with a hint of pink on the bottom. This is called breaker stage 1. Any last bastion of flavor is lost during the final insult — a long voyage in a refrigerated truck. By the time you pick up that chilled package of tomatoes for $3.99 at the Sack-n-Save, you may as well be buying pink baseballs.

It is no wonder that tomatoes are the Number One vegetable grown in the home garden!

Tomato Myths Debunked

There is a lot of questionable ‘advice’ out there about tomatoes, especially for Texas. Here’s a few myths we can bust right off the bat:

Myth #1: You can’t grow a good tomato in S.E. Texas.

Fact: For the most part, all the same rules and advice to growing tomatoes that apply elsewhere also apply to Texas, it’s just that our window of opportunity is much smaller. It’s a myth that we have a long tomato growing season. Actually, we have an extremely short one — comparable to parts of Canada. Tomatoes are generally set in the ground the first week of March, and the plants are completely spent by mid-July. That’s less than 120 days! If you put out seedlings that are too small, or you are a few weeks late getting started, your harvest will be greatly compromised!

Myth #2: You should only grow special heat setting hybrid tomato varieties.

Myth #3: Beefsteak tomatoes cannot be grown in S.E. Texas.

Fact: We have found that if you plant large transplants early enough, in the right conditions, almost any tomato variety can be grown successfully here. Besides, most heat setting varieties don’t taste very good!

Myth #4: Tomatoes don’t grow well in containers.

Fact: Even the fussiest tomato varieties can be grown and produce as well in containers they do in the ground, if they are given the right size pot, the right care and nutrients. See our Container Gardening article for tips.

Myth #5: You should grow “disease resistant” varieties.

Fact: Since the 1950’s, scientists have been breeding tomatoes to be productive, disease tolerant, and thick skinned to stand up to shipping. Much of this research on disease tolerance has focused on soilborne diseases such as Fusarium and Verticillium Wilt (represented by F and V in the name). However, these are not problems common to S.E. Texas. Root Knot Nematodes are a problem for some folks here with sandy soil, but there are solutions for that other than limiting yourself to only tomatoes with an “N” following the name.

The biggest disease problems that most of us in S.E. Texas face are Early Blight, Septoria leaf spot, and Anthracnose fruit rot, etc. for which there are very few hybrids which are tolerant to those problems. In short, trying to grow special tomato varieties for our area is not really necessary. Check out both our Tomato Varieties and Pests and Diseases articles for more information.

The Right Dirt

The heavy clay and “gumbo” soils prevalent in S.E. Texas provide a poor medium for growing tomatoes. Even if you dig a hole and replace it with excellent soil, you are just creating a “bowl” of good soil that will fill up with water every time it rains. Tomato roots, like most plant roots, require not only nutrients and water, but also oxygen for respiration and will rot if left in standing water for even a few hours.

Other S.E. Texas gardeners have discovered that they have the opposite problem — their backyard resembles a beach. Soil made up primarily of sand will drain too well and will also encourage nematodes.

We recommend rising above these soil issues with raised bed gardening.

A Good Foundation

If you choose to make your raised bed out of lumber, we suggest pressure treated wood. This type of wood has not been treated with arsenic for many years and so is safe for vegetables. Untreated wood will start to rot within one year and may fail by the second year due to termite activity. Pressure treated wood will last 3-5 years.

Resist the temptation to build a giant raised bed. A large raised bed over four feet in width may be tempting, but then you’ll need to step into the soil to reach all your plants. We prefer to build manageable raised beds no wider than 4′ in one direction, so that you can reach into the center of the bed and tend to your plants without compacting the soil.

A 3′ x 12′ raised bed will comfortably handle 6-8 large tomato plants. All you need to start your raised bed garden is two 2″ x 10″ x 12′ boards, a 2″ x 10″ x 6′ board cut in half, and a box of galvanized wood/deck screws. Remember, you need a space to walk around your plants and/or allow a lawnmower to pass. Ideally, you want to leave at least two feet of walkway between your beds, in order to tend to your plants and harvest.

staggered-planting

3′ x 12′ beds with 8 plants per bed, staggered/zig-zag planting

The Grass is Greener…

If like most of us, you want to replace some of your lawn with a garden, you’ll need to remove the grass first. If you have St. Augustine grass, you may be able to eliminate it by laying out black plastic or just building your garden bed on top, covering it with inches of soil. However if you have Bermuda grass, you will need to completely remove it to have any hope of a successful garden.

Renting a sod cutter will set you back $50, which is a lot cheaper than the chiropractor and also takes a lot less time. If you’ve got a month or two before planting season, you could use Roundup or a similar herbicide to wipe out the grass, although it can be tricky to apply in straight lines. One way or another, your grass (which is really a cultivated persistent weed) has gotta go.

Fill ‘er Up

Garden beds always take twice as much soil to fill as you think they need. A 3′ x 12′ bed filled to a depth of 8 inches requires 24 cubic feet of soil. Potting soil and potting mix are some of the best soil ingredients, but are also very expensive in the quantities necessary to fill such a bed. If you can find it, Premier Pro-Mix is the most cost-effective bagged potting mix (4 cubic feet compressed for $10~12). Peat moss is a good ingredient for providing good drainage, although you will need to add a little dish soap to get this normally hydrophobic material to absorb water. You can also bulk up your soil with a small amount of dye-free shredded pine bark or sandy topsoil as filler if need be. If you have a wholesale soil company in your area, you may be able to have pre-mixed garden soil delivered in bulk quantities starting at 3 cubic yards (which will fill 3 raised beds). Do your homework! Some soil yards are better than others.

Tip: Freshly cut wood chips can be a poor addition to your soil as their decomposition may temporarily “lock up” nutrients which would otherwise be available to your plant roots.

Tip: Dyed mulch such as Super-Red, Super-Black, or any unnaturally colored mulch can burn your plants. Use undyed mulch.

Compost

The most important ingredient in your raised bed gardens is compost. Compost is partially or completely broken down organic matter, and provides organic material to feed the plants and create healthy soil. Beware the $1 bags of “composted manure”, “compost”, or “composted humus” you find at local home improvement stores and retailers, as they are often little more than the soil scraped off a vacant lot, plus rocks, sand, and other mystery ingredients. Black Kow composted manure is $4.50 a bag, but it is 100% compost and a 3′ x 12′ bed needs only 3-4 bags in the first year and 1-2 bags each year thereafter. Composted sheep or horse manure, as well as fresh rabbit manure, shredded leaves, composted rice hulls, leaf mold compost, and cotton burr compost are also excellent products if you can find them.

Tip: Fresh horse manure should be allowed to age for at least 2 months before you plant your tomatoes. If your garden beds are idle in December or January, you can add fresh horse manure and it will have time to break down before you till it under.

Timing Is Everything

March or April is much too late to buy a 6-pack of tiny tomato transplants from a big box store. In mid to late February, you should be on the lookout for large (8-12″ tall) transplants from reputable local nurseries, or better yet grow your own transplants from seed! Tomato plants should be planted out as soon as overnight temperatures are predicted to stay above 40°F for 7 days. Some years, we can plant as early as February 21st. Others, we have to wait until March 15th. If you wait until all danger of frost has passed, usually late March or early April, you will greatly reduce your chance of getting a good harvest.

The single most important thing you can do as a tomato grower in S.E. Texas is to plant early, and then protect your plants from cold.

We now recommend transplanting your plants, installing your soaker hoses, placing your tomato cages, and then wrapping your tomato cages with summerweight Row Cover at planting time. This sounds like a lot of work, but by adding row cover from the very beginning, you provide an insulated blanket to your plants that you can open on warm days and close up before cold weather to trap in heat and protect your plants. Binder clips from your local office supply store are easiest for clipping the row cover into place. We’ve also seen a noticeable improvement in growth rate on plants as they are 5-10 degrees warmer than the surrounding area. We wait to remove this row cover until mid-April or once all danger of frost is gone.

If the worst happens and overnight temperatures are predicted to drop below 38, be prepared with blankets, tarps, or row cover to protect your plants. If you are a night owl and temperatures drop to the danger zone of 36 degrees or so, you can mist your plants with a hose attachment as a last-ditch attempt to keep them from freezing. Misting can not only warm the plants, but will temporarily warm the surrounding air by 2-3 degrees. Remember, the coldest part of the night is typically just before dawn.

Walls of Water are a frequent recommendation for protecting tomato plants from cool weather. However they are expensive, tricky to set up, and if the wind picks up, they can fall over and crush your plants. Further, the frosts which are the most damaging usually strike when the plants are 2-3 feet tall. Walls of Water are only 18″ tall.

Tip: Local T.V. weather casters and radio announcers tend to provide rather inaccurate forecasts — we no longer trust them. They tend to report the coldest temperature for the day ie. just before midnight. Yet the coldest part of any night is typically just before dawn. You should consult a reputable weather website such as Weather Underground or NOAA before making any decisions about whether to protect plants or not.

A Tomato is a Tomato

If you contact your county extension service about growing tomatoes, you will likely receive recommendations for productive commercial hybrid varieties such as Celebrity, Carnival, Sunmaster, Bingo, and BHN444. This is the same advice they offer to large scale farmers. However for the home garden, we prefer to grow tomatoes for flavor and those varieties just don’t deliver for us.

It can be a challenge to select the right tomato varieties that balance between the best tasting and best producing for S.E. Texas. Typically, seedlings of our favorite tomato varieties aren’t sold at the big box stores. Fortunately, most major cities in S.E. Texas have a great selection of local nurseries with countless tomato varieties to choose from. Please check out our Tomato Varieties and the Recommended Vendors articles for recommendations and where to find seeds and/or plants.

Starting from Seed

Although there are some good sources to buy great tomato transplants in Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, sometimes the only way to grow your favorite varieties is to start your own seeds. We sow seeds indoors in late December to mid-January and grow them for 6-8 weeks under fluorescent lights before preparing them for the outdoors. Plants which were started indoors must be gradually introduced to sunlight. This process is called hardening off and takes 5-7 days.

Check out our extensive Starting from Seed article for detailed instructions.

Feed Me

Before your plants go in the ground, you’ll want to prep your soil. This includes the application of fertilizers such as TomatoTone, GardenTone, or other fertilizers with numbers tailored to tomatoes. We don’t use Miracle-Gro or anything with high numbers like 14-14-21.  Indeed, a good tomato fertilizer might have numbers like 2-5-6 with low nitrogen (the first number). A small amount of dolomitic lime might need to be added to your planting hole as well to prevent Blossom End Rot, especially if you are growing in containers.

Once your tomato plants start to develop small tomatoes, an additional feeding of fertilizer is recommended. This can be a handful of the fertilizers mentioned above, or a liquid fertilizer diluted and sprayed onto the plants such as Neptune’s Harvest fish emulsion, Maxicrop Liquid Seaweed, or HastaGro 6-12-6 liquid fertilizer.

A product that we particularly like is Bluebonnet Farms Premium Organic Fertilizer. It contains many ingredients such as dried molasses, corn gluten meal, dried seaweed, alfalfa meal, and fish meal which are known to foster beneficial soil microorganisms. Update: current availability of this product seems to be poor in the area, unfortunately. We have heard that the private label Calloway’s (Cornelius in Houston) carries might be the same or similar, though – but have not yet confirmed.

Tip: One of the biggest mistakes in growing tomatoes is going overboard on fertilizers. High nitrogen fertilizers such as chicken manure should only be added in small quantities. Adding these or a high number fertilizer like 30-30-30 is a recipe for gigantic plants and little or no tomatoes.

Transplanting

Properly hardened-off tomato plants should be transplanted into the ground 2-3 feet apart from one another, and planted as deep as possible (removing any foliage which will be underground). Several inches of the stem should be buried if possible, so only the upper branches of each tomato plant are above ground. The fine hairs on the stem of a tomato plant will produce roots when buried, providing a much stronger, healthier root system.

Tip: Water your tomato plants just before taking them out of the pots and planting in the ground, and then water them again, getting the surrounding soil moist. Plant on a cloudy day, or in the afternoon or early evening so that your plants will have one night to acclimate themselves before they are hit with full sun.

Water Water Everywhere

After all the time and effort you have invested in your garden, don’t kill your tomato plants with kindness! Tomato plants should be watered well when transplanted, again after 2-4 days depending on the weather, and then if you have prepared your beds as described above, should only require 1-2 inches of water once per week early in the season, provided there is no significant rain. The best judge of whether your tomato plants need water is your finger. Dig your finger into the soil. If it is wet at a depth of 2-3 inches, then it does not need water.

If you want to baby your tomato plants, don’t let them go to bed wet! Tomato plants should ideally be watered in the morning or early afternoon using soaker hoses which apply water where it’s needed — the roots — and not where it isn’t — the leaves. If watering by hand, use a watering wand to apply water to the soil line, rather than wetting the leaves. If tomato plants get wet in the evening, there won’t be a chance for the sun to dry off the leaves, leaving your tomato plants vulnerable to fungal and bacterial infections.

Fungus is Anything but Fun

The most commonly heard buzzword in tomatoes is “disease resistant”. But the diseases which run rampant in S.E. Texas include fungal foliar diseases such as Early Blight, Septoria Leaf Spot, as well as Anthracnose fruit rot, Bacterial Spot, and Bacterial Speck. At this time, there are few desirable tomato varieties available which protect against these conditions.

Fortunately, applying a thick layer of mulch, proper watering, sanitary gardening practices, and weekly application of an anti-fungal spray can keep these problems at bay long enough to have a fantastic harvest.

Don’t Forget the Mulch

The best preventative measure you can take to keep fungus from splashing onto your leaves when the next monsoon rainstorm passes through, as well as regulating moisture on hot days, is a 2-3 inch thick layer of mulch. Some good choices for mulch include:

  • Dye-free shredded pine bark mulch (not super-black or super-red)
  • Wheat straw (if you can find it)
  • Shredded leaves (not black walnut!)
  • Grass clippings (if you have not used ‘weed and feed’ in the last 3 months)
  • Shredded non-glossy newspaper (water immediately to prevent it from flying away)

Tip: Mulch should not touch the stems of your plants, or it may encourage stem rot. If you are installing soaker hoses, do so before installing mulch and tomato cages.

Support Your Local Tomato

Most of our preferred tomato varieties have an indeterminate growth habit which means they grow up to be free-spirited 5-8 feet tall plants. Some of our cherry tomato plants can even reach 10-12 feet. The quaint 3-4 foot conical tomato cages at major retailers just will not do.

Texas Tomato Cages are the Cadillac of tomato cages, as they are very sturdy, last forever and can be folded for easy storage, but their price ($26 each shipped) may be out of reach for many readers. You can make your own cages out of Concrete Reinforcing Wire which have large holes for easy access to the plants, if you don’t mind rusty cages.

I recommend building cages from galvanized fence. Because the holes are too small to reach through, I use 2 lengths of wire to keep a gap of approximately 8 inches where the ends meet so that the plants and fruit can be easily reached. Other solutions include staking, the Florida weave, and cages made from PVC pipe.

For a complete selection of support methods, see our Support Your Plants article.

Tip: Even though you’ll be pretty beat after planting your tomatoes, don’t wait more than a week or two to install your cages or support system. Tomato plants grow fast, and the legs on your stakes or cages could disturb the roots.

Harvest Early, Harvest Often

It is a myth that tomatoes must be left on the vine until ripe to develop the best possible flavor. We have found that tomatoes that are harvested at first blush and ripened indoors are almost indistinguishable from ones that are left on the vine until ripe.

Considering the temptation that ripe tomatoes offer to mockingbirds, squirrels, stink bugs, and other pests, why take the chance? Just be careful not to damage other fruit or break branches in the process of harvesting.

Trivia: Researchers have found that the sugar and acid content in tomatoes actually decreases if fruit is left on the vine to full ripeness. The sugars begin to turn to starches and acidity is reduced, resulting in a more bland tomato.

Please check out the rest of the articles on our site which fill out the details on the concepts described above:

Elsewhere Around the Web:

Posted on 25 January '09 by Morgan, under Growing Tips. 2 Comments.

Container Gardening

Container growing is a quick and easy way to expand your available gardening area even if you have poor soil or limited space in your yard to make garden beds. A container can be set anywhere you have good sun, whether it is on a driveway, a patio, or in the middle of your yard. Another distinct advantage is that it gives you the ability to safely set plants out earlier, because they can be more easily protected by moving in the event of a late freeze or frost. Containers are also practical for those who move frequently or live in apartments or condos.

Also, container growing is a good alternative for those who are battling various soil problems, and losing the battle. The primary soil problem in Texas tends to be root knot nematodes. Less prevalent are bacterial wilts, and verticillium and fusarium (systemic fungal diseases).

Suitable container sizes and example varieties

  • Indeterminate – 15 gallon preferred (10 gallon at least) – Cherokee Purple, Black Cherry, Sun Gold, Green Giant, Arkansas Traveler
  • Compact indeterminate/determinate/semi-determinate – 5 to 10 gallon – Picardy, Rutgers, Break O’Day, Kimberly, Bloody Butcher
  • Dwarf/tree-type/compact determinate – 5 to 7 gallon – New Big Dwarf, Lime Green Salad, Citron Compact, Golden Dwarf Champion, Extreme Bush, Taxi
  • Micro/mini – 2 to 3 gallon – Red Robin, Tiny Tim


(Indeterminate plants in 15 gallon containers with 18″ diameter, 6′ tall Texas Cages, early in the season – many indets will eventually end up growing past the tops of those cages )

Larger containers are preferable in our hot climate because it cuts down on watering and it also makes for a more stable planting that is less likely to tip over in a storm.

I have found ANY variety can be successfully grown in a container, especially if the container is an adequate size for the plant. I generally avoid 5 gallon buckets and the like for indeterminate varieties and don’t generally recommend them as a “best” practice in our climate. However, it can be done if you are willing to keep up with the high watering and feeding requirements that will result from growing large plants in small containers. I’ve found that much better results are obtained from using a 15 gallon container or larger (10 gal minimum), and prefer to save the 5 gal pots for dwarves or compact determinates.

Cherry types are also good for containers (use 10 gallon minimum) because they are much less susceptible to blossom end rot (BER) than larger fruited varieties.

Mulching

I recommend mulching as it helps to limit splashback of fungal spores from the potting mix onto foliage. It also helps to keep the roots cool and moist, and cuts down on both frequency and amount of watering. My preferred mulch is wheat straw, applied 3-4″ thick. Do not pile it right against the stem, though — leave about an inch or two gap. I particularly like wheat straw because of the light color and hollow structure, which makes an excellent insulator. Shredded leaves and pine straw are other favorites. Shredded paper (non-glossy) can also be used, but be sure to wet it after applying or it will blow away. I prefer to avoid colored paper, unless I know the dye used was soy based. Wood mulch or bark chips can also be used, but avoid the dyed mulches as the dark color will be more likely to absorb heat.

Watering

Containers should not be allowed to dry out completely, as this can cause BER and blossom drop. Don’t wait until your plants are wilting to water. Water every day if necessary, but do not overdo it. When the container starts to feel lighter and the soil is dry a few inches down, this is usually a good indication it is time to water. Also, don’t be tempted to water on a hot day just to cool off the roots, it may cool them off, but it will also smother the plant (roots also like oxygen) and can lead to root rot and any number of other problems.

Using larger containers and mulching can cut down drastically on the time spent performing this task. Water the container and not the foliage. Wetting the foliage unnecessarily can contribute to foliar fungal disease (like Early Blight and Septoria Spot), which can frequently be a problem in our area. Also, water in the morning or early afternoon if you can so that any water that has splashed onto the foliage has a chance to evaporate before the sun sets.

Container color

For our hot climate, containers in light or neutral colors are generally best so the roots don’t bake. I prefer to use white containers, and avoid the use of black.

Suggested container mixes

The use of dirt dug up from your yard, cheap bagged topsoil (frequently lots of rocks, sand, and “mystery” dirt), poor quality potting soils, or bagged mix labeled “garden soil” is not recommended. Nor is the use of excessive amounts of sand, because of the small particle size. Excellent drainage is particularly important in a container, which is why I prefer a peat based mix. Bark fines or finely shredded landscaping mix can be added to this as well to stretch it out.

The compressed bales of Pro-Mix are a favorite of mine, but are becoming increasingly hard to find in the area. Alternatives include Jungle Growth, Metro Mix, and Miracle Gro potting mixes.

Note: Rocks or gravel added to the bottom of a container do not help with drainage. They can even inhibit drainage due to the physics of how soil in a container drains/wicks. This is a common and persistent gardening myth. However, they can be occasionally be useful to add weight to a container to cut down on the possibility of tipping.

My basic recipe for container mix

For every 5 gallons volume of potting mix, add:

  • One cup of slow release fertilizer (10-10-10 or the kind labeled for vegetables or tomatoes). Or, TomatoTone per label instructions.
  • 1/2 cup of Dolomitic/pelletized lime to help prevent BER — avoid hydrated lime as it can burn your plants
  • 10% compost (optional)
  • Bark fines — can be up to half of the volume of the mix if desired

Alternative recipe from Al (Tapla) for those who like to make their own completely from scratch

  • 3 cu ft pine bark fines (1 big bag)
  • 5 gallons peat
  • 5 gallons perlite
  • 1 cup lime
  • 2 cups slow release fertilizer (Osmocote or similar)
  • 1/2 cup micro-nutrient powder or 1 gal composted manure

Can potting mix be reused?

While there is no hard and fast rule, I generally prefer not to reuse container mix more than once. If reused, it should be turned over to help bury any fungal spores on the surface, and re-amended (see above recipe for container mix).

Ongoing Fertilization

I prefer to add a little more slow release fertilizer once I see significant fruit set, and also every couple of weeks or so once the plants get large. Alternatively, Miracle Gro or the equivalent can be periodically used at half-strength. So can TomatoTone or any number of products. The important point is that plants in containers require more frequent fertilization because of all the watering involved, which tends to deplete the container mix.

Fertilizers provide three primary nutrients to plants, plus many micronutrients. The three primary nutrients are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K). Nitrogen produces lush, green foliage. Phosphorous is vital for producing a healthy root system to support the plant. Potassium promotes flower and fruit development and is vital for maintaining growth.

Support and stability considerations

It can sometimes be a challenge to properly support a container planting, but can be done. Methods I prefer include the use of a small (18″ diameter) Texas cage placed inside of a large container, a tall 6-8 ft stake, or a cage made of concrete reinforcement wire (CRW) cut to fit inside the container (a small stake may need to be added to attach the CRW cage to for stability).

High winds can be a problem in our area and can cause even a large container to tip over, especially if it is a large indeterminate plant, top heavy and loaded with fruit. It may seem counterintuitive, but right before an impending storm, I prefer to water all my containers if they are a bit on the dry/light side. This helps to make them heavier and less likely to tip over. If your potting mix is light and free-draining, this occasional “overwatering” shouldn’t be a problem. Containers can also be pushed together as a unit to help prevent tipping. Yet another way to cut down on the possibility of tipping is to drive a tall stake next to the pot (or though the bottom of the pot).

Grow Bags

Grow bags are an inexpensive alternative to hard sided containers and are also much easier to store. They can also be reused, especially if you take good care of them. However, they can be more susceptible to tipping, so keep that in mind before deciding to use them. One way to make them more stable would be to run a long pole/dowel through the handles of multiple bags to help keep them together as a unit. They could also be staked. For a grow bag source, see: GrowOrganic.com


(Grow Bag image courtesy of Michael Volk in El Paso, TX)

Earthboxes™

I don’t use Earthboxes, but many do and are pleased with the results. If you use them, be sure to follow the instructions exactly, because every instruction has a specific purpose in ensuring the best results. Use a peat based potting mix like Pro-Mix or Jungle Growth. The mix needs to be light and fluffy to ensure proper upward wicking from the water reservoir below. Also, be sure to put the cover on as instructed so that the system remains sealed and the fertilizer strip you’ll apply per instructions does not get too quickly released into the mix due to rain. Cover should be white side up to help keep the roots cool in our hot climate. Some EB users will also add a strip of dolomitic lime as well, and it is generally recommended to cut down on the possibility of BER. When the plants get large, the EB water reservoir might have to be filled at least once a day in a hot climate.


(Earthbox image courtesy of Araness in Orange, TX)

Earthboxes and any number of accessories designed to work with the system can be purchased from the company who sells them, including plant supports and automated watering systems which attach to a faucet. The quality of the products is good, but the cost can really add up if you are growing a significant number of plants.

You can make your own EB type containers to cut down on the expense, and so that you can have a larger water reservoir than standard to cut down on the need to fill it so frequently. Instructions here: http://www.josho.com/gardening.htm

Posted on 29 January '09 by Suze, under Growing Tips. 2 Comments.

Pests and Diseases

Diseases

The most common and problematic diseases of tomato plants in Central and South Texas are foliar fungal (rather than systemic) diseases such as Early Blight and Septoria Leaf Spot. We also occasionally see some minor Bacterial Speck, but have not found that these usually prevent the possibility of obtaining a good harvest here.

img_8310-earlyblight
Early Blight

We may also encounter various fruit rots and spots later in the season, especially if rains are heavy. This can be due to a variety of reasons, including late blight, advanced/untreated early blight, pythium and alternaria rots, anthracnose, etc. Good cultural practices, including mulching, removing diseased fruits/foliage, and frequent picking can cut down on the frequency of fruit rots.

Blossom End Rot is not a disease at all but is instead a physiological issue with nutrient uptake. BER is typically caused by uneven watering/moisture and usually goes away later in the season. Its effects can be somewhat mitigated through proper watering techniques. We have found that the application of Dolomitic (not hydrated) lime can also be helpful, but you may not need it. If in doubt, have a soil test done first.

img_8314-blossomendrot-mh
Blossom End Rot

Root Knot Nematodes can occasionally be a problem, especially for those with sandy soil. Nematodes cause root galling and affect the ability of the roots to uptake water and nutrients. Signs of a nematode infestation are visible bumps (galls) on the roots, wilting, yellowing of leaves, and stunted plants. Commonly suggested methods to control nematodes include planting cover crops of elbon rye, marigolds, or brassicas, but results vary. Amending the soil with lots of organic matter may also help, as well as rotating crops.

Some folks are getting good to great results by pretreating planting areas using mustard based products such as Dazitol, or even by just working some mustard powder into the planting hole when setting out their transplants. If you have problems with nematodes, yet another option is to grow in containers.

Actinovate might also be worth a try, and there is some anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that it might help to create a favorable environment for the roots to thrive and resist RKN. Adding sugar or molasses to the planting hole can also help.

Another option is to grow Nematode tolerant varieties (frequently hybrids) denoted by a “N” following the variety name in the catalog or on a plant tag description. However, we have found that most N tolerant varieties may not always be the most flavorful. Some we do like for taste include Sun Gold, Better Boy, Sweet Quartz, Mortgage Lifter VFN, and Momotaro — just to name a few.

Note: Tolerance does not mean complete resistance. If the infestation is severe, even N tolerant plants will eventually succumb, but it can buy you some time — perhaps enough time to get a good harvest.

Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWV) is a devastating tomato disease for some folks in the Panhandle, but is not generally seen that much in Central and South Texas at this time. TSWV is transmitted to tomato plants via thrips. Ways to minimize the possibility of TSWV include keeping weeds mowed and avoiding plantings of known host plants close to or in your gardening area. Specifically, be aware that marigolds are a common ornamental host plant for thrips (and spider mites) in our area, even though this goes somewhat against old garden lore that suggests marigolds are a good “companion” plant for tomatoes.

tswv
Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus courtesy MSUCares

Fusarium and Verticillium wilts are systemic fungal diseases and are not typically seen in Texas. These diseases would be present in the soil and thus infect plants via the root system. Treatment options tend to be limited for both of these fungal wilts, but luckily, they are rather uncommon in our area. Bacterial wilts are also systemic, and tend to be uncommon in our area.

General Disease Prevention Suggestions

  • Watering — Water plants in the morning or early afternoon whenever possible, and water the soil, not the foliage. Do not be tempted to overwater. Water deeply and infrequently from the very beginning to train your plants, as this will tend to cause them to drive their roots deep (to seek water), which will lead to healthier plants that are better able to fight off various stresses. We generally prefer to water our plants no more than once every 3-4 days or so, even during the worst drought weather and hot temps. Soaker hoses or drip tubing (Netafim, for example) are our preferred method of watering plants.
  • Location — If at all possible, site your plants where they get good early morning sun so that foliage dries out quickly from any accumulation of overnight rain or morning dew.
  • Mulch — Mulching can help in limiting splashback of fungal spores onto the foliage from the soil. It can also assist you in your efforts to water deeply and infrequently as a layer of mulch will significantly cut down on evaporation. Just be careful not to pile up too much mulch right up next to the stem — be sure to leave a gap of an inch or two to avoid stem rot. Several inches of pine or wheat straw, coastal hay, shredded black-and-white newspaper, shredded leaves, and untreated pine bark are possible mulch choices. Ideally, install your soaker hoses first, then put mulch on top of them to keep any wetting of the bottom foliage to a minimum.
  • Spacing — Space plants 24″ to 36″ apart for proper airflow. This will tend to limit the chances of disease from spreading from plant-to-plant and will also avoid areas of dense foliage between plants where insects may hide.
  • Removing diseased foliage — Remove and dispose of diseased foliage on your plants periodically to minimize the possibility of fungal disease spreading to the rest of your plants. Do not add diseased foliage to compost piles.
  • Selective Pruning — There is a lot of advice out there on pruning and “suckering” to reduce the foliage on a tomato plant to a “main leader”. We do not subscribe to these approaches, however we do believe in cleanup of dense thickets of foliage, as well as any foliage which may touch the ground. After 3-4 weeks of growth and plants have reached 36″ tall, we make it a habit of cleaning up the bottom 12″ inches of foliage. This can be helpful in allowing the plants to dry out more quickly after rains and morning dew. If plants become extremely cramped in their cages to the point that good airflow is inhibited, some light thinning of the foliage is recommended. Otherwise, we have found that it is wise to leave most of the foliage on for both maximum photosynthesis and protection of the fruits from sunscald.
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    Sunscald

  • Preventative spraying — From the day of planting out, and then frequently in the early season, we treat plants with Daconil (Chlorothalonil) or another fungal preventative to help the plants get off to a good start and “reach a critical mass”. Later in the season, we are less likely to continue spraying plants, especially if they look healthy after significant fruit set has been achieved. In a particularly wet year, application is more frequent compared to a year lacking in rainfall. Daconil is a non-systemic fungicide that coats the foliage in order to limit fungal spore attachment.Daconil is not a cure-all, and will not reverse existing disease present on foliage. It is best used as a preventative from the get-go, applied early and regularly, if at all. Daconil can usually be found at most box stores or gardening centers labeled as either Ortho Garden Disease Control or Daconil in a 29.6% concentration. Mix up small batches following the instructions. Pre-mixed spray bottles of Daconil have poor application and are not cost effective if you are growing more than a couple of plants.

    Actinovate is an organic alternative to Daconil for fungal disease prevention and control, and so is Exel LG. I’ve found they work fairly well if used regularly and early, but are best used in conjunction with each other as they have different modes of action and neither one when used alone is as broad spectrum as Daconil. Either alternate between the two products for your weekly sprayings, or you can mix them together.

Pests

Stink bugs and Leaf-footed bugs are frequently a problem in our area because they will damage the fruit, leaving behind inedible corky white spots. Soap sprays and neem oil can help in controlling the immature bugs (nymphs), but may not have always much of an effect on mature bugs. Bugs and nymphs should be removed from plants and squashed whenever you see them. They can also be knocked into a bucket of very soapy water, or vacuumed off using a hand-held vacuum. Surround, a finely milled kaolin clay, can be mixed with water and sprayed onto the plants to repel them. Trap crops such as millet can sometimes be effective as stink bugs usually find those crops to be more attractive. It’s much easier to see and collect stink bugs on millet then in the dense foliage of a tomato plant. Chemical (non-organic) controls for stink bugs include Ortho Bug-b-Gon Max (Bifenthrin) spray and Sevin (Carbaryl) spray or dust.

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Adult leaf-footed bugs

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Leaf-footed nymphs

Not every insect encountered in the garden is an enemy.

Assassin Bugs can look similar in appearance to leaf-footed or stink bugs from a distance, but have distinct differences in leg formation and other distinguishing characteristics. Wheel bugs, a type of assassin bug, have a serrated “wheel” protruding from the top of the thorax. They are not harmful to your tomatoes, and are in fact a highly beneficial insect which will prey on many other insects in your garden. Assassin bugs usually travel alone which can be used to help identify them. Nymphs look similar to leaf-footed and stink bug nymphs, so keep that in mind and attempt to make a proper ID before reaching for a pesticide.

Keep an eye out for Cornworms and Fruitworms, as they will tend to bore into the fruits and cause damage. More often than not, fruitworms will eventually find your tomato plants.

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Fruitworm damage

Hornworms can eat an amazing amount of foliage relative to their size. One tomato hornworm can eat half of a tomato plant per day.

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Hormworm

Note: If you find a hornworm that has been parasitized by Braconid wasps (white eggs on its back), leave it be, as these are beneficial wasps that will kill the hornworm before it does substantial damage.

B.T. (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is a bacterium which is ingested by caterpillars and worms and causes them to lose their appetite. It is sold either as a powder (Dipel Dust) or as a liquid concentrate (BT Worm Killer). Used early and regularly in the season, it will keep the population under control before they have a chance to multiply and do serious damage. BT does not kill on contact, but instead is used as a preventative.

Both Spider Mites and Whiteflies can sometimes be a problem, but usually tend to be less problematic in our area than the above-mentioned pests. Spider mites are much more frequently seen during dry/drought years, or in the more arid areas of Texas. Both can usually be controlled with regular use of soap sprays or neem oil, but it is important to become familiar with the early signs of damage — dulling of foliage and/or rasping (tiny lighter spots on leaves) — so you can treat if necessary before the population gets a foothold and does major damage to your plants.

A magnifying hand lens may be helpful in spotting them early on – look on the undersides of the leaves for moving dots and thin wispy webbing. We have found that severe spider mite infestations cannot always be effectively treated using soap sprays or neem oil. Pyganic (pyrethrin) is an expensive concentrate which kills spider mites on contact.

Note: Overuse of the broad spectrum insecticide Sevin has the potential to cause mite problems down the road, as it kills other insects that prey on them. Sevin is not effective against spider mites. You can end up with a double whammy effect by using it if your garden is prone to mite problems. Just keep that in mind before reaching for the Sevin dust and regularly coating your plants in it as a general all-purpose bug preventative.

Disclaimer: Advice in this article is offered “as is”, and is based on our personal experience growing tomatoes and other vegetables in Texas. We assume no liability for the use (or misuse) of the products or techniques mentioned above.

Before using any garden product, please read the instructions and review any harvest withholding or picking guidelines on the label carefully. Most products are best applied in the morning, especially if application involves wetting the foliage. Even seemingly innocuous “homemade” tonics or soap sprays have the potential to burn your plants if used when temperatures are high or during direct midday sun. Please use recommended dilution rates as per label instructions — more is not better and can damage your plants or be toxic to you.

Suggested Reading

Posted on 29 January '09 by Suze, under Growing Tips. 1 Comment.

Saving Seeds

Tomato seeds are surrounded by a gel which contains a natural germination inhibitor. Properly processing and preserving tomato seeds starts with removing this gel, then drying the seeds, and lastly storing them in a suitable container.

At one time, the only method for cleaning tomato seeds was fermentation. However we have found this technique to be unpredictable and time-sensitive, not to mention the undesirable odors and repulsive molds and fungus that grow during the process.

We have found a more predictable, tidy approach involving Oxiclean washing powder. Seeds can be cleaned in 30 minutes, which is invaluable if seeds must be saved before a vacation, or large batches must be processed at once. In the seed preservation industry, a similar process substituting the chemical cleaner Tri-Sodium Phosphate is used instead.

If you treat tomato seeds properly, they can be stored for 5-10 years and still show a high germination rate.

Fermentation

The classic method of saving seeds is to leave them out in a plastic container for a few days until they start to ferment. The tomato solids produce a strong smell and sometimes develop a “fungus mat” during this process. Because of the unpleasant aroma, some people have been driven to ferment their seeds outside. But because 100 degree temperatures are typical for S.E. Texas — a temperature that can “cook” tomato seeds — we have found fermentation to not be the most preferable technique.

Fermentation is also unpredictable. You never know how long it’s going to take for the seeds to separate from the tomato solids. If you’re going on a trip or out of town for the weekend, you might come back to dried out, useless seeds.

Can I Save Seed from Hybrids?

Tomato seeds grown from open pollinated varieties will always produce the same variety from year to year provided there has been no inadvertent cross-pollination by insects. Seeds from hybrid tomato varieties are likely to produce many different offspring with variations in fruit size, color, and flavor.

Unless you are willing to take your chances and experiment with the results, seeds should only be saved from open pollinated varieties (eg, heirlooms).  Seeds saved from hybrids and crosses may not be true-to-type. If you are considering saving seeds from tomatoes found at the grocery store, realize that most are grown from hybrids (F1) and thus there is a high probability that you will not get the same tomato when you save seeds and grow them.

Seeds should be saved from tomatoes which are noticeably ripe. If possible, avoid saving seeds from deformed or “catfaced” tomatoes as they may have resulted from a fused blossom. Since a fused blossom is usually a much larger flower than the typical tomato blossom, there is a higher likelihood it attracted bees or other pollinators. The seeds you save might be cross-pollinated from another tomato and yield unexpected results.

Seed Saving Step-by-Step

Note: Make sure your work surface, utensils, cups, strainer, and fingernails are clean and free of any stray seeds before and after each seed saving session.

Hint: It is helpful to get a paper plate ready by writing the variety name on it with a permanent marker before you begin. It’s easy to walk away and forget what variety you saved seeds from! Don’t write with a gel or regular ink pen as the moisture from drying seeds will obscure your writing.

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  1. Select ripe tomatoes of one variety to save seeds from.
  2. Cut a hole or X on the bottom of each tomato and squeeze the juice and seeds into a measuring cup.
  3. If the seeds and juice from the tomato are less than 1 cup, add water to make 1 cup.
  4. Add 1 tablespoon of Oxiclean washing powder for each cup of tomato seeds/pulp/water.

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  1. After 30-45 minutes, stir, then pour seeds through a fine mesh strainer.
  2. Rinse off seeds until they no longer feel “slippery”.
  3. Use a paper towel to dry off the bottom of the strainer.

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  1. Turn the strainer upside down and whack it onto a non-coated paper plate to transfer the seeds to the plate.
  2. Spread seeds around so they are not all clumped together. This will allow the seeds will dry properly. Cover loosely with a paper towel and place out of reach of children, cats, ceiling fans, etc. for approximately 1 week or until seeds are dry.
  3. Scrape seeds into a paper envelope (such as Coin Envelopes from your local office supply store) and label with variety name, year, and your seed source.

Mailing Seeds

Domestically, it is easy to mail 3-5 packets of seeds in a standard sized business envelope. Because seed packets can slide around in the envelope when handled, it is strongly recommended to take a blank sheet of letter sized paper and tape the seed packets to it in such a way that no two seed packets are overlapping.

Loose seed packets can attract the attention of postal inspectors, not to mention that seeds may be crushed by mail sorting equipment if all the seed packets slide to one end of the envelope. Bubble mailers may be used if you wish to ensure safe arrival of your seeds.

Mailing seeds to other countries poses additional challenges. Padded/bubble mailers attract attention, so we do not recommended them. One suggestion is to mail individual seed packets inside of greeting or holiday cards.

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Posted on 31 January '09 by Morgan, under Growing Tips. 3 Comments.

Starting from Seed

Introduction

Once you’ve started tomato plants from seed successfully, you will probably never give a second thought to reading a How To website on the subject. Given the right conditions, tomato seedlings practically grow themselves — it really is that easy. After all, tomatoes and their wild brethren have been growing for millions of years without human intervention.

And yet Seed Starting articles tend to be lengthy and full of detail. Why is this?

One of the complications that typically makes these articles so long is the wide variety of soil products, seed starting materials, fertilizers, and lighting options available in different parts of the world. The actual method of starting tomatoes is straightforward, but choosing the most reliable and suitable materials can be tricky.

Each tomato can contain hundreds of seeds, and like all seeds, germinate at their own leisure whenever sunlight, water, and soil conditions are viable. But most of us want to avoid wasting seeds and get the best possible germination out of a packet of 15, 30, or more seeds. So this guide will set out to create the perfect conditions so that 100% of your seeds germinate and produce healthy tomato seedlings.

If you have favorite tomato varieties, then counting on your local nursery to carry them, and to have stock at the time you need them inevitably leads to disappointment. Some of our favorite varieties are relatively new on the scene, aren’t widely known, or aren’t popular, so the only solution is to grow seedlings ourselves. It’s worth learning how to successfully start your own seeds so you can always grow the exact tomato varieties you want.

The Basics

Let’s start with the most straightforward step-by-step instructions possible for growing tomato plants from seed to seedling to planting into your garden. We’ll keep this section as free from unnecessary details as possible and then expand on those areas in separate sections below.

Materials You Will Need:

  • Tomato seeds
  • Water
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Large spoon or trowel
  • Sterile soil-less Seed Starting mix (an 8 quart bag is $4)
  • Seed starting tray or plastic pots
  • Liquid fertilizer (i.e. Maxicrop liquid seaweed, Alaska fish emulsion, HastaGro 6-12-6, etc. $6-12)
  • 40W 4′ fluorescent light fixture with adjustable chains ($25)
  • one 40W 4′ Daylight fluorescent bulb ($6) and one 40W 4′ cool white fluorescent bulb ($3)
  • or 2 full spectrum 32W or 40W fluorescent bulbs

1. Make sure your seed starting tray, pots, mixing bowl, and trowel are all clean. If necessary, rinse these items with 10% bleach solution to sterilize them.

2. Pour dry seed starting mix into a large mixing bowl and moisten until just damp. The mix should be damp and clump when squeezed, but yet not be sopping wet.

3. Transfer the moistened starting mix out into into seed starting tray or pots and loosely smooth the surface with the trowel.

4. Drop tomato seeds onto the surface of the soil and then barely cover with soil. The goal here is to plant as shallow as humanly possible. Some people use a toothpick or other tool to push each seed slightly under the surface of the soil. After I drop my seeds on the top of the moist soil, I sprinkle a fine layer of dry seed starting mix over the top and then mist with a clean spray bottle full of water until moist.

5. Place a clear plastic lid or some loosely tented plastic wrap over the surface of the seed starting trays or pots, then set them in a warm (not hot) place with a temperature from 55-75°F. Plastic cover should not be airtight.

6. When seeds begin to germinate, remove plastic cover and move tray/pots under fluorescent lights at a distance of no more than 1-2 inches from the exposed fluorescent bulbs for 16 hours a day.

NOTE: There is no danger of your seedlings being burned if they touch the bulbs.

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7. Every day, you should raise the lights or lower pots/trays as needed to maintain a maximum distance of 1-2 inches between the tops of your leaves and the light bulbs.

8. When your seedlings have grown their second set of true leaves, apply liquid fertilizer at half strength mixed in a clean chemical-free spray bottle (ie. 1/2 tsp in a 20 oz spray bottle full of water).

9. If your seedlings are in trays, then you will need to transplant them into 4 inch pots after about 3-4 weeks, or when your seedlings have their third set of true leaves and are approximately 3-5 inches tall. When transplanting, you should retain some extra plants as “backups” in case a frost damages your first planting.

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10. Once seedlings are 5-7 weeks old, they should be approximately 8-10″ tall. At this point, it is now 1-2 weeks prior to the scheduled planting time. You should begin “hardening off” your seedlings by gradually exposing them to sunlight, first with full shade, then dappled shade, then a few minutes of sunlight a day, gradually increasing their exposure until on the 7th or 8th day, they are experiencing full sun even in the hottest part of the day (11am-1pm).

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11. When weather forecasts are predicting no upcoming nights below 40°F, transplant tomato seedlings outside into your garden as deep as possible, removing any leaves that will be buried. This should take place on a cloudy day, or in the mid-to-late afternoon to allow plants 1 day to acclimate. In case of full sun, a sheet or row cover may be draped over sticks, cages, or other framework to shield the plants from full sun for a few days.

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Advanced Seed Starting

Now, let’s provide more detailed explanations for the Seed Starting Steps provided above:

Advanced Seed Starting TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Right Soil

When they first germinate, tomato seeds are vulnerable to any bacterial or fungal spores which might be present in your growing medium (soil).

Problem: If shortly after they germinate, your tomato seedlings die, especially with a dark ring just above the soil line, this is damping off and indicates that your soil is somehow contaminated.

Solution: To prevent your seedlings from getting these diseases, seed starting materials should be as sterile as possible.

Seeds should be sown in soil-less seed starting mix which retails for $4~5 for an 8 quart bag which will comfortably fill a 72 cell flat tray or a dozen 4″ pots. You should absolutely not start seeds in potting mix and certainly not garden dirt.

If you have any doubts about your seed starting materials (trays, pots, trowel), sterilize them with a 10% bleach spray and rinse them before use.

If you intend to grow completely organic transplants, then you will need to create your own soil mix from organically-derived peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. Commercial seed starting mix includes a wetting agent which allows the peat moss to absorb water. If you are creating your own mix, you will need to add 1 tsp of an organic dish soap to 1 gallon of water to encourage the normally hydrophobic peat moss in your mix to accept water.

We recommend pouring your seed starting mix into a large bowl and then pre-moistening it with water until it is just damp, but not sopping wet. Scoop the moist mix into your seed starting trays or pots.

Trays and Pots

Whether you start your tomato seeds in trays (sold in a variety of configurations and sizes) or pots is up to personal preference. You may start your tomato seeds directly in 4″ pots and transplant directly into the garden, or you may start in small cells and “pot up” into 4″ pots as they grow taller.

Ferry-Morse sells good quality seed-starting trays with clear plastic domes. These trays can be cleaned and re-used for many years. To save space, you may plant 2-4 seeds in each cell of a 72 cell seed starting tray. They will need to be separated a few weeks later before the roots intermingle. You can also start directly in 4″ pots and just pick the strongest seedling and cull the rest.

The benefit of starting in a smaller cell and then transplanting or “potting up” into a larger pot is encouraging the initial tap root (which goes straight down to the bottom of the pot) to become a more fibrous root system taking up the whole pot.

We recommend making a map of your seedling tray (including some indication of orientation in case you rotate the tray and forget which end is which!) and labeling the contents. [Downloadable Seedling Maps]

The Trouble with Peat Pots

We have found that the compressed peat of Peat Pots tends to wick water away from tender seedlings, depriving them of water. Also, peat pots do not degrade nearly as quickly as advertising suggests. We have heard stories of frustrated gardeners digging up stunted plants only to find that they never broke free of their peat pot prisons.

Problem: Seedlings in peat pots often do not get enough water causing them to wilt, and do not show healthy growth.

Solution: Use plastic containers instead, and reuse them year-to-year. After 5 years I have discarded less than 1% of my pots.

Problem: Seedlings started in peat pots which have been transplanted into the garden fail to thrive and are stunted.

Solution: If you intend to use peat pots, we recommend cutting off the bottom of the pot before transplanting to allow free root growth.

Pre-soaking Seeds?

An entirely optional step in seed starting is to pre-soak your seeds before sowing them. Pre-soaking seeds can increase germination % and seedling vigor.

Problem: I have tomato seeds which are over 6 years old, or am starting later than I planned. How do I increase the chance and speed of germination?

Solution: Pre-soak seeds in a warm tea & fertilizer mixture for 1-12 hours before sowing.

Add a tea bag to a cup of warm water and steep for 5 minutes. Discard the tea bag and add a few drops of Maxicrop liquid seaweed. Arrange several small bowls or cups on a table and add your seeds to each cup. Then add enough of the weak tea to each bowl to moisten the seeds. Soak seeds for anywhere from one to 12 hours. Then sow seeds into moist seed starting mix.

If you have fresh seeds (less than 5 years old), or you are starting seeds for too many varieties for this to be practical, than this step can, of course, be skipped.

A Matter of Depth

Tomato and pepper seeds, especially cherry tomato seeds, seem to germinate with a higher rate of success when sown extremely shallow — merely 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch deep.

Problem: Tomato seeds, especially cherry tomato seeds, fail to germinate.

Cause: Seeds have been sown too deep.

Solution: Sow tomato seeds extremely shallow.

If you are concerned that you may plant your seeds too deep, then simply drop the seeds on top of the soil and use a small tool such as a toothpick to move a few strands of the peat moss mix over the seeds. Another solution is to drop seeds on top of the moist soil, sprinkle a small amount of dry soilless seed starting mix on top and then mist the surface with a sterilized water bottle until damp.

Tomato seeds germinate at different rates. Cherry tomatoes can be especially precocious. Pepper seeds meanwhile prefer to germinate about 10 degrees warmer than tomato plants (ideally 85 F degrees). If you are lucky enough to have a seedling heat mat, then you can start both pepper and tomato seeds at the same time. Otherwise, we recommend starting your pepper seeds 2-3 weeks before you start your tomato plants as they will need the additional time to come out of hibernation.

How Much Water?

Once you’ve got your seeds planted, your biggest challenge may be resisting the temptation to overwater. We recommend not watering the soil again until the seedlings are 1-2 inches tall and have used up most of the water in the soil. This is typically 5-7 days after germination. There will be a noticeable lightening of the surface of the soil as it dries out. Also, the seed starting trays and/or pots will lose weight.

Don’t let your seedlings dry out either. If seedlings start to wilt, you should water them immediately.

When adding water to trays, we generally prefer “bottom watering“, or lifting the corner of the tray insert and adding water to the tray underneath. This way, tender young seedlings are not disturbed by the added water.

Some minor growth of green moss on the surface of your seed starting trays is normal, but this may be a symptom that you have been overdoing it on the watering.

Get Your Light On

The human eye has a remarkable ability to allow us to see comfortably from the light of just a few candles, to the full intensity of the sun.

  • Bright Sunlight: 110,000 lux
  • Shade: 20,000 lux
  • Fluorescent light: 500 lux
  • Sunrise: 400 lux
  • Full moon on a clear night: .25 lux

Brightness is not just a function of the intensity of the light, but also the distance from the light. For this reason, trying to grow seeds on a windowsill or located 6-8 inches from a fluorescent light is not much better than providing no supplemental light at all. Especially with fluorescent lights, light intensity output falls off dramatically over a distance of just a few inches.

We recommend growing your seedlings under a fluorescent light fixture which accommodates two 48″ 32W or 40W bulbs. These typically run $20-30 at Home Depot and Lowe’s. Given a choice, you should buy a light fixture with the widest metal reflector available so as to distribute the light over the entire width of the tray. The $15 lights at Wal-Mart are of poor quality, so we do not recommend them.

Problem: Tomato seedlings are growing “leggy” and thin, or bending towards a window in search of light.

Solution: Place fluorescent lights no more than 1-2 inches from top of seedling leaves for 16 hours per day.

We recommend raising and lowering either your lights or seedling trays/pots such that the top leaves of your seedlings are no more than 1-2 inches from the fluorescent bulbs. Use chains to raise and lower the lights, or use old books, DVD cases, etc. to raise and lower plants. There is no risk of plants being burned as the bulbs are only slightly warm to the touch.

We recommend running these lights on a timer for 16 hours a day, but if you will be away for a weekend, seedlings can be grown under 24 hour light for a few days without ill effects.

If full spectrum fluorescent light bulbs are available in your area, by all means buy them in either 40W or 32W intensities. Otherwise, to provide a full spectrum of color, we use one cool white bulb (approximately $4) and one Daylight warm/natural light bulb (approximately $6).

NOTE: Fluorescent bulbs show a marked drop-off in light output after 2 years, so  we recommend replacing them on this interval. There is no need to purchase expensive Aquarium, Terrarium, Deluxe, or Plant Growth lights.

A recent development in seed starting involves High Pressure Sodium and Metal Halide lights. These can produce in excess of 400 W of light. With the use of reflective mylar (the shiny material which party balloons are made of) and with the lights 3-4 feet above the plants, a very large number of plants can be grown. If there is interest in this subject, we can expand on it in a separate article.

It’s a Breeze

Use an oscillating fan to provide a gentle breeze over your seedlings for several hours per day. This will encourage them to grow thicker stems and overall stockier plants.

Problem: Tomato seedlings are not growing thick stems.

Solution: Although commercial greenhouses use chemical growth inhibitor sprays which encourage seedlings to grow thick, stocky stems, and also grow seedlings at low temperatures (50-60°F), you can mimic some of this by using an oscillating fan to encourage thicker stems on your plants.

NOTE: Many major retailers do not carry oscillating fans in December-February as they are a seasonal item.

Fertilizing Your Seedlings

Emerging tomato seedlings will first show two slender rounded leaves called cotyledons. Sometimes these are attached to the coat of the seed they germinated from. You may use a moist Q-Tip or gingerly use a pinching movement with your fingers to rescue your seedlings from these stubborn seed coats.

The next set of leaves are the “true” leaves s0-called because they are the main type of leaves your tomato plants will have. Each tomato variety has leaves which are slightly different.

Until you see a second set of true leaves start to emerge (seedlings will typically be 3-4″ tall at this point), it should not be necessary to apply any type of fertilizer. We recommend preparing Maxicrop seaweed/kelp emulsion or fish emulsion at half their normal strength (1/2 tsp per 20 oz) in a completely clean spray bottle which is free of any chemical residues.

Unless you intend to grow your seedlings beyond the typical 6-8 week timeline (producing 8-10″ tall seedlings), this should be the last fertilization your seedlings need until they are ready to be transplanted into the ground.

Potting Up (Transplanting)

If you started your seeds in trays, then you will need to transplant up to 4″ pots when the plants have reached a suitable size, typically 3-5″ tall and with their third set of true leaves. Your seed starting tray should be well-watered about 30 minutes before transplanting. Tomato plants are very resilient and if they’ve had a good drink of water, they’ll stand up well to the transplant process.

Tomato plant stems have many fine hairs which have the remarkable ability to become roots if buried. Take advantage of this by transplanting your tomato seedlings as deep as you can. We recommend picking off any leaves that will be buried in the soil by this process. If the seedling is not tall enough to have leaves above the surface of the soil, then add some soil to the bottom of the pot prior to transplant.

Hardening Off

Seedlings started under artificial light must slowly become acclimated to sunlight before they can be transplanted into the garden. The midday hours of 11am-2pm are the most likely to damage tender plants due to the sun’s intensity, so exposure should be avoided until plants have been suitably prepared.

1 – 1 1/2 weeks before planting, your seedlings can be moved outdoors into full shade for 1-2 days and then gradually provided with dappled or direct sunlight on a gradually increasing duration. If evening temperatures are predicted to fall below 45 degrees or high winds are predicted, move seedlings indoors. Hardening off times can be doubled on cloudy days. Here is a general hardening off itinerary:

[Day 1] Full Shade
[Day 2] 10 minutes of morning sun.
[Day 3] 15 minutes of morning sun. 10 minutes of afternoon sun.
[Day 4] 45 minutes of morning sun. 30 minutes of afternoon sun.
[Day 5] 1 1/2 hours of morning sun. 1 hour of afternoon sun.
[Day 6] 3 hours of morning sun. 2 hours of afternoon sun.
[Day 7] 4 hours of morning sun. 3 hours of afternoon sun.
[Day 8] Ready to plant.

We realize that many folks cannot do the type of “babying” described above.  There are several methods of unattended hardening off, including placing some type of protection, such as a lawn chair, inverted laundry basket, or lumber supported by bricks or five gallon buckets directly over the plants that will allow morning and afternoon sun to reach the plants, but block the searing midday sun until your plants are ready for it.

A solution of kaolin clay powder (marketed as Surround) mixed with water may be sprayed onto plants to provide a protective physical “shell” to reduce sunlight exposure. This sunblock would need to be reapplied in case of rain. Seedlings may also be placed outside under a 50% shade cloth if you have a means to support this cloth over the plants. At the very least, tomato seedlings should be exposed to dappled shade as much as possible leading up to transplant.

Plants which have not been hardened off will exhibit foliage damage 1-2 days after exposure. A characteristic dessication of the leaves from improper hardening off (tan smooth spots where the leaf has dried out and become paper-thin) can stunt or kill seedlings.

Going Outdoors

Tender seedlings are vulnerable to insect pests such as flea beetles and leaf miners. Flea beetles leave behind tiny holes in the leaves. Leaf miners leave zigzagging tracks in the leaves of the seedlings. In both cases, there is no point in spraying the plants with insecticides as the insects which caused the damage are gone by the time you find evidence.

Preemptively spraying plants with Surround or dusting the plants with Sevin (carbaryl) when they are first set out will protect them from most opportunistic insects.

When to Plant?

The most common question about growing tomatoes in South East Texas is when to plant.

If we wait until all danger of frost has passed (mid-April), then we will get very few tomatoes, especially from late season varieties (most heirlooms). So we must plant out large, healthy transplants in early- to mid-March and be willing to protect our plants from the occasional cold temperatures.

Most of your tomato fruitset will typically occur in late March (if you were able to get your plants out early), April, and early May. By late May to early June, evening temperatures are no longer dipping below 70. The high humidity and “muggy” conditions” inhibit your tomato plants from setting fruit. Daytime temperatures in the low 90’s also denature the pollen in tomato blossoms, putting an end to any further tomato fruitset.

It is really imperative to get plants out as early as possible and be willing to protect said plants with row cover and other measures. Waiting until April is not an option!

Don’t Trust the Weatherman!

The High and Low temperatures provided by many television newscasts, newspapers, and websites can be very misleading. They do not always indicate the highest and lowest temperature per day, but instead estimate the temperatures at midnight and noon. The coldest time of day is typically 6 AM.

We strongly recommend consulting the National Weather Service, or Weather Underground to get hour-by-hour predictions of expected temperatures for your area (ZIP code). Weather Underground is usually pessimistic (they always low-ball evening temperatures) which makes it an especially valuable website for farmers and gardeners. Both sites also provide Hour-by-Hour temperature predictions which can be helpful to know if plants will be exposed to only a brief dip or experience a prolonged exposure to cold temperatures.

NOTE: Seedlings that are still in containers or pots should be brought indoors if evening temperatures are predicted to go below 45°F or if high winds are expected.

We recommend planting tomato seedlings outdoors when overnight temperatures are forecast to remain above 40°F for the next 5 days. After planting your tomatoes outside, we recommend consulting a trusted weather website daily until mid-April. For the last 5 years, we have had at least one unexpectedly cold night (below 40°F) in early to mid- April.

In the event of a predicted frost (below 38°F), immediately install row cover, blankets, walls of water, or tarps during the day to trap as much heat as possible. Clear plastic or plastic tarps may be used but should not be allowed to touch plants as they will burn/damage the plants when the cold sets in.

If you have too many plants to protect using the above methods, then constant misting with water from a hose or use of sprinklers has been shown to keep plants from succumbing to frost damage as low as 33°F. City and well water are typically over 40°F and so will provide a temporary “temperature blanket” effect. This solution will increase the amount of fungal problems during the season (specifically early blight), but it is worth it if your plants can be saved.

If plants are lost due to cold, you will be dependent upon your own “backups” (you did grow 2 of every plant, right?) or, as a last resort, the last remaining tomato plants marked on clearance at the local nurseries.

Planting Dates

Exact planting dates change from year-to-year, because weather is so variable. However you cannot wait until the risk of frost is gone. We recommend that you start watching the weather and plan towards certain dates, but always be prepared to delay.

We’ve got a separate article on Tomato Growing Timeline & Gardening Calendars.

This sounds complicated! Can I buy plants?

If you have reached this point of the article and the idea of starting your own tomato seeds sounds daunting, or the calendar on the wall indicates that it’s already February, you’ll be surprised to know that there are excellent nurseries in the major southeast Texas cities and surroundings which carry a wide variety of healthy plants. Although I start my own seeds every year, inevitably I do buy a few plants at local nurseries to support local business. Sometimes  they have a great variety I hadn’t thought of. You can safely assume that plants from local nurseries have already been hardened off and are ready for transplant.

Houston – Inside Beltway 8: Wabash Antiques, Another Place in Time, Southwest Fertilizer and Buchanan’s Native Plants all have an excellent array of tomato and pepper varieties.

Houston – Outside of Beltway 8: RCW Nurseries is starting to carry a good selection of herb and vegetable plants. Cornelius Nurseries, Houston Plants & Garden World and Houston Garden Centers all carry the ubiquitous Chef Jeff’s line of tomato and pepper plants which have some good choices.

Austin: Bloomer’s in Elgin, TX has a good selection of well-grown transplants beyond the usual box store hybrids. The Natural Gardener in Austin is also worth checking out.

San Antonio: We are currently inquiring about the best nurseries in San Antonio.

Dallas/Ft. Worth: Calloway’s Nurseries has nearly 20 locations in and around Dallas, Fort Worth, and Plano. We have not investigated, but presumably they have the Chef Jeff’s line of plants which have some good choices.

Revised: 2010.08.23, 2011.01.13, 2011.02.21

Posted on 4 June '10 by Morgan, under Growing Tips. 2 Comments.

Support Your Plants

There are any number of ways to support tomato plants. Some work better than others, depending on the size of the plants.

While we do grow a few dwarf and determinate tomato varieties, the vast majority of the tomato varieties we grow are indeterminate, producing 5-10′ tall plants. The cone-shaped tomato cages found stacked floor to ceiling at big box retail stores are fine for the smaller varieties, but absolutely will not support our larger plants.

Here, we present the methods we prefer or recommend for adequately supporting indeterminate or semi-determinate varieties. We’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each as well:

Texas Tomato Cages™

These premium cages are made of galvanized metal (little or no rust), foldable for easy storage, and solidly constructed. The cages come in two sections, a bottom and a top. They are also expensive (nearly $24 per cage including shipping and tax), but will last a lifetime if properly taken care of.

The standard/large cage is 24″ in diameter and 6′ tall. We also occasionally like to use the 18″ wide cages for containers or some of the more droopy foliaged heart/paste varieties like Prue or Wes. Really, the only disadvantage to these is the cost — in our opinion these are by far the best ready-to-use cages on the market. Visit Texas Tomato Cages website for more information.

txcages2
(Texas cages in my ‘07 garden)

Concrete Reinforcement Wire (CRW) Cages

These are also a great way to support plants. However, you will need to make them yourself (use caution and wear a long sleeved shirt, gloves, and eye protection when cutting the wire) and they are not foldable, so will take up a fair amount of room in your yard in the off-season, especially if you grow a lot of plants.

They will last many years (we have heard of folks who still use CRW cages they made 20 years ago), although they do rust. One way to somewhat mitigate the storage space they will take up is to make some of the cages a slightly smaller diameter, so that they can be stored inside of the larger ones.

It is generally recommended to make a 24″ diameter cage, but some prefer them a bit smaller. There is no need to cut off the bottom so that the cages can be stuck into the ground a few inches, as if will not make the cages stable enough for our occasional high winds, and you will lose a bit of cage height by doing so. Stabilize the cages using lengths of rebar driven at least a foot into the ground and secured to the cages with wire or zip ties.

earl_s-faux1-6-17-06

aunt-gertie_s-gold-8-11-04
(Photos of Earl’s Faux and Aunt Gertie’s Gold courtesy of Earl Cadenhead in Columbus, OH)

Galvanized “C” Cages

Galvanized fence is cheap and comes in 50, 100, and 150 foot rolls up to 5 feet tall. The main benefit of galvanized fence is that it is lightweight, nearly as strong as the heavier Concrete Reinforcing Wire (as described above) and does not rust. The drawback, which has kept some people from seriously considering them for cages, is that the fence holes are a mere 2″ x 4″ — too small to accommodate any but the smallest of hands.

The solution Morgan found is to prop the ends of the cage open with lengths of heavy wire. This gap allows tending to the plants and harvesting. Cages should be zip-tied together once the plants start getting taller. Another solution (pictured below) is to add T-posts to your garden bed and attach the cage ends to them. Either way, at ~$80 for 20 cages and a couple hours of work, it is one of the cheapest cage solutions we’ve seen.

Tip: Galvanized fence comes tightly wound. To unspool it, ask a friend or use a couple of bricks to secure the roll while you unroll and flatten sections of it by walking on it. It will still have enough “spring” to form a circle once released.

Hint: Use heavy wire snips to cut the fence. A 2 foot wide cage would require just over 6 feet of material. But since we are leaving an approximate 1 foot gap in each cage, then we should cut lengths of fence approximately 5 feet by 5 feet.

c-cages-morgan

morgans-c-cages2
(Morgan’s Galvanized “C” Cages, anchored together using zip ties)

bullys-c-cages
(Photo courtesy of Bully in Michigan, “C” Cages anchored using posts)

Florida weave

Requiring less maintenance than staking and able to support more plants at a lower cost, Florida Weave is a process of “weaving” tomato plants using heavy garden twine between stakes (typically placed between every other plant) to support and contain the plants.

There is still a bit more work involved when compared to just caging. Twine will need to be added periodically to support the plants as they grow, also, the plants will need to be trained into the weave. For instructions, see How Do I Use Florida Weave?

deerpark_fla_weave
(Photo courtesy of Michael Gunn in Pasadena, Texas)

PVC Cages

PVC cages are made from lengths of PVC and connectors. These are comparable in cost to Texas cages, plus there is some work and time involved in making them. In addition, the components have to be reassembled each year, if one is disassembling the cages at the end of the growing season. However, they are very sturdy and are presented as one of many support alternatives. See Tom Matkey’s PVC Tomato Cages for pictures and instructions.

tom_matkey_cages
(Photos courtesy of Tom Matkey)

Staking

Staking is a frequently recommended means of supporting tomato plants, however, it requires a fair amount of maintenance for indeterminate tomato varieties. Six to eight foot stakes driven at least a foot into the ground are recommended.

You will need to periodically tie up the plants to the stakes using garden twine or the stretchable green garden tape – really, anything you have on hand that will not cut into the plants can be used, some even cut up old worn out t-shirts into strips and use that as ties. Wooden stakes can be used, but since termites are so prevalent in our area, they may not last long unless they are treated wood. We generally prefer the 8ft green plastic coated metal stakes which can be found at many large home improvement stores. Metal T-posts can also be used as well if you can find ones that are at least 6′ tall for indeterminates, because you will lose 1′ driving them in to make them stable.

grubstommies
(Photo courtesy of “Grub” Lockwood in Australia, staked tomato plants and misc vegetable containers)

Cattle Panels

Neither one of us has personally used cattle panels to support plants, but thought it might be worthy of mention in order to provide another good alternative to support indeterminate plants. We have seen instances where tomato gardeners made a huge garden arch with a panel and planted their tomato plants on the outside. We’ve also seen instances where folks put long lengths of panel in their beds or rows and then shored the panels up with posts every few feet. If using this method, you’ll need to periodically tie up your plants to the panels and/or train them into the panels.

Sprawling

You may be tempted to allow your tomato plants to sprawl along the ground, as they do in their native environment. However, we have found that this does not work particularly well in our humid South East Texas climate.

Disease pressure here is high due to our heat, humidity, and occasional torrential spring and early summer rains. Plants and fruits will be more susceptible to Early Blight, Anthracose, and other assorted rots and fungal diseases. If you intend to sprawl, be prepared to grow extra for the slugs, birds, and other critters. Plant spacing would need to be quite a bit more generous than with caged or staked plants, allowing at least 5 feet between rows and 4 feet between plants within a row. A heavy layer of mulch would be a must.

Posted on 29 January '09 by Suze, under Growing Tips. 3 Comments.

The Vine Ripened Myth

A question I am frequently asked is “Should I leave tomatoes on the vine until they’re ripe for best flavor?

Every once in a while, I will find a fully ripe tomato on the vine that I missed. This is rare, as usually the squirrels or mockingbirds eat them. What surprises me is that they don’t really taste any better than tomatoes I pick and ripen indoors on a countertop. An informal poll on tomato forums confirm this, with most gardners reporting no noticeable improvement in flavor over tomatoes that were picked after first blush and finished indoors.

At this point, I consider vine ripening to be a marketing myth.

The biggest causes of poor flavor in grocery store tomatoes are actually:

  • Varieties selected for productivity, early harvest, uniform size and shape, and disease resistance/tolerance.
  • They are grown in nearly sterile soil and fed on a diet of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
  • They are picked completely green (1st breaker stage), and shipped off to an ethylene gas chamber to artificially ripen. Remember: “Vine ripened” has no legal definition.
  • They are shipped thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks.
  • They are then refrigerated again at the grocery store until they are put out for sale.

All of these steps conspire to produce a completely flavorless tomato.

In S.E. Texas, stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, squirrels, mockingbirds, and unexpected afternoon rainstorms make leaving tomatoes on the vine until fully ripe a dicey proposition.

Tomatoes harvested at about 1/2 blush and will finish ripening indoors.

Don’t Refrigerate Your Tomatoes!

Out of curiosity, I took one of my best homegrown heirloom tomatoes and refrigerated it for 24 hours and the loss of flavor was shocking. It was almost as bland as a grocery store tomato.

Posted on 4 June '10 by Morgan, under Growing Tips. No Comments.

Tomato Growing Timeline & Gardening Calendars

Tomato Growing Timeline

Spring Crop
Start seeds: December 25th – January 15th
Transplant: Feb 21st – March 18th (protect from late frosts if necessary)
Fruit set: April 1st – May 15th
Usual peak harvest: May 15th – July 10th

Fall Crop
Start seeds: June 1st – July 1st
Rooting cuttings: June 15th – July 25th
Transplant: July 21st – August 15th
Fruit set: August 21st – September 21st
Harvest: October 7th – early December (depending on weather)

Vegetable Gardening Calendars

Travis County/Austin area (zone 8b)

Harris County/Houston area (zone 9a-9b)

Houston/Bob Randall Guidelines

Posted on 1 February '09 by Suze, under Growing Tips. No Comments.

Tomato Varieties

“Which tomato varieties do well in Texas?”

To my mind, this is not a question that can be answered easily by simply providing a list.

Timely planting is every bit as important as variety selection. A common mistake new tomato growers in Texas make is to plant too late. Even a couple of weeks can make a major difference in getting a decent harvest from any variety before the heat kicks in, even from some of the “heat setter” types – which frequently don’t taste very good.

Plant early! Protect plants if necessary. In Central and South Texas, a good target plant out date is usually the first to second week of March. This also means you will need to get your seeds started before Jan 15. Planting out in late March or early April is usually too late.

Also, different people define tomato success in various ways. I primarily grow for taste, and have a large garden with plenty of plants, so the productivity of any one plant or variety is not a major concern of mine. If a tomato is not very good to great tasting to me, I probably won’t grow it again no matter how productive the variety was.

Others may only have room for just a few plants and so productivity is likely going to be a major concern. A superb tasting variety that only gives a gardener 5-6 tomatoes per plant may not be considered so much of a “success” if they’ve only got ten tomato plants total in the garden and a large family who loves to eat plenty of tomatoes.

Are Heirlooms More Difficult?

We come across a lot of blanket statements out there like “heirloom tomatoes don’t do well in Texas” and “it is better to grow hybrids”. However, we’ve found that almost any tomato variety can be grown here when planted at the right time and properly cared for. It is true that some varieties are noticeably more productive than others, but this is no reason to exclude heirloom varieties from your garden in favor of hybrids, because some heirloom or open pollinated varieties can be plenty productive too. A wise gardener grows a variety of different tomatoes to find which do the best for him or her in terms of productivity, flavor, and other factors.

We encourage gardeners who are just starting out to grow a variety of varieties to see what works best for them, and also what may appeal to their tastes. We present below, a short list of fairly reliable, productive tomatoes that have scored well with us for flavor:

  • Jet Star — F1 hybrid medium fruited red variety developed in 1948 by Harris Seed Co.; widely available in seed packets and plants have been spotted at major retailers and some nurseries
  • [Arkansas] Traveler — An excellent dark pink medium fruited tomato developed and released by the University of Arkansas in 1971; 4-6 ft tall plant; plants are available almost universally at better nurseries
  • Gregori’s Altai — Heirloom Russian variety; large pink beefsteaks on a 4-6 ft tall plant; exceptionally early
  • Break O’Day — 7-8 oz uniform red globes with very good flavor and productivity on compact 4 ft plants
  • Momotaro — F1 hybrid pink, tennis ball sized globes with great flavor and productivity on 4-6 ft tall plants
  • Sun Gold — F1 hybrid goldish-yellow cherry tomato; extremely productive on a very large plant — 8-12 feet
  • Black Cherry — Dusky purplish-dark cherry tomato; very productive on a large plant — 6-8 ft tall; developed by the late Vince Sapp of Tomato Growers Supply
  • Sweet Quartz — One of the better pinkish-red cherry tomatoes; extremely productive on a large plant — 6-8 feet tall;
Jet Star
Jet Star
Arkansas Traveler
Arkansas Traveler
Gregori's Altai Gregori’s Altai Break O'Day
Break O’Day
Momotaro Momotaro Sungold
Sun Gold
Black Cherry
Black Cherry

Here is a short list of some of our top favorites on taste alone. We usually get at least 8 good tomatoes minimum per plant from all the varieties listed by planting early, sometimes a lot more:

  • Brandywine (aka Brandywine Sudduth’s, aka Pink Brandywine)
  • Prue (a paste or roma-shaped tomato)
  • Cherokee Purple (similar to Indian Stripe)
  • Earl’s Faux
  • Stump of the World
  • Wes
  • Aunt Gertie’s Gold

Note: Varieties recommended above are just a few we like and are by no means an inclusive list of our favorites. Also, we’ve primarily listed varieties that have at least fair commercial availability for the seed at this time.

Posted on 30 January '09 by Suze, under Growing Tips. 13 Comments.

Where to Buy (Recommended Vendors)

Seed Sources

There are several reputable sources for tomato seeds, but two we particularly like based on their selection and service are Tomato Growers Supply and Victory Seeds. Both of these companies are convenient to order from online, germination rates are good, crossed seeds are infrequent, and service is prompt, dependable, and courteous.

Tomato Growers Supply has a great selection of both open-pollinated/heirloom and hybrid tomato, pepper, and eggplant seeds.

Victory Seeds is known for having the most complete Livingston tomato variety collection around and has a fantastic selection of heirloom and historical tomato varieties.

Other vendors to consider for vegetable seeds include:

Sand Hill Preservation is known for their extraordinary melon varieties and poultry selection, while their tomato catalog selection contains many varieties which remain difficult to find outside of private collectors.

Orders for Sand Hill must be submitted via snail mail (no online ordering), and only checks and money orders are accepted. They also do not take orders from August 15 to December 25, which can be a bit inconvenient for us Texas growers. Quantities are generous and prices are very reasonable.

Marianna’s Heirloom Seeds specializes in some of the more unusual varieties of tomato seed. Her selection of eggplant and peppers is also good, and Marianne carries seed for several sweet Italian frying type peppers, which we have found generally do better here in Texas than bell types. Online ordering is available (via PayPal).

Additional Recommended Seed Vendors

Plant Sources

If you are looking for a mail order source that has a great selection of well-grown open pollinated and heirloom transplants, check out Selected Plants.

Houston (Inside Loop 610) nurseries have gone out of their way to distinguish their offerings with unique choices of tomato and pepper seedlings you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Houston (Outside Loop 610) nurseries all carry a selection of tomato varieties including the ubiquitous Chef Jeff’s line of tomato and pepper plants which have some good choices.

One good choice for Austin and surrounding areas is Bloomer’s in Elgin, TX. They grow and sell an eclectic mix of tomato and other vegetable varieties.

Another nursery I recently discovered in Austin that is worth checking out for tomato and other vegetable and herb transplants is The Natural Gardener. Their selection of organic amendments (both bagged and bulk) is amazing, and they brew compost tea on-site, which is available for sale Fri-Sun.

We are currently inquiring about other nurseries in Austin as well as San Antonio.

Dallas, Fort Worth, and Plano have nearly 20 Calloway’s Nurseries which carry the Chef Jeff’s line of tomatoes and other veggies.

Please let us know if you have had a positive experience at any local nurseries in Central or South Texas that are worthy of mention on this website.

NOTE – Just because a vendor is not listed does not necessarily mean they aren’t a good source. We’ve merely listed some recommendations based on companies we have personally dealt with in the past and been pleased with. To find out more information about any mail order vendor you may have questions/concerns about, go to The Garden Watchdog and look them up.

Posted on 29 January '09 by Suze, under Growing Tips. 5 Comments.