Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tomato Review

The tomato season is long past, and it was quick this year.  Before the weather cools and my thoughts turn to fall greens, I want to record how each of my tomato plants did this year.  I grew seven tomato plants this summer.  I bought all of them as baby plants in four-inch pots at the Natural Gardener on March 17, 2011, and planted them the next day.  They established immediately and grew quickly, doubling in size in a week and growing into full-size plants by the first of May.  I began picking ripe grape tomatoes on May 14, though it was another couple of weeks before the full-sized tomatoes began to turn yellow or red.  At the peak of this year's tomato harvest, around the time of the summer solstice (June 21), tomatoes of all sizes filled the kitchen table.  At the end of June, tomato production slowed as quickly as it had accelerated at the beginning of the month, so that by the second week in July, I was only picking a few, small tomatoes every day or two.  I stopped watering the plants in mid July and pulled them out on July 25.

Peak tomato harvest, June 21, 2011

Which all sounds very precise, with specific dates, thanks to the date stamps within all those digital photos.  While the dates will help me plan for tomato seasons to come, the reality of my tomato garden was far from precise or scientific, so, before I proceed with observations on how each tomato plant fared this year, I should make a few disclaimers.

First, this was my first summer to grow tomatoes in the raised-bed garden along the south wall of the house.  I built the retaining wall to make the garden this spring, amended the existing rocky soil with mulch, compost, and manure, and immediately planted.  The soil was very young and non-uniform, with intermixed patches of existing soil, composted organic matter, and raw or partially-decomposed organic matter.  Which was fairly normal for one of my gardens, especially in the first season or two, and it seemed to be fine for the young tomato plants, given how quickly they grew.  In addition to soil differences, each tomato plant had a different location along the south-wall garden, which was built to level out the slope along the side of the house.  As a result, the tomatoes at the west end of the garden grew in the deeper part of the raised bed than those in the east end.  The two tomatoes on the end of the row had fewer neighbors than the others and had better access to light but also had to deal with drier conditions on the edges of the garden.  Altogether, each tomato plant had its own microclimate in terms of soil depth, soil composition, light access, competition, and water retention.  All of which is, again, completely normal in any garden, but means that my results are simply that, my results, observations from my garden this year, not scientific conclusions about the performance of these tomatoes.


Next, I should mention that something ate my tomatoes this year.  Tomato loss is an expected part of growing tomatoes in Austin, where birds snack on the tomatoes, ruining whole fruit with a single peck, and healthy populations of fruit-eating mammals, including mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, skunks, and raccoons, have learned where all the best gardens are.  But, when I say that something ate my tomatoes this year, I mean that something ate my tomato plants, as in the tops of the green vines, which is something that I had never seen before and had never heard of.  I mean, who eats tomato plants?  My best theory was that the very fat green caterpillar that I found snacking on a green tomato was the culprit, or one of them.  I don't know where the caterpillar came from or what it would have turned into, had it lived long enough to metamorphosize into its adult form.  I moved it to my compost pile to fatten up a bit more before it was surely eaten by one of the animals – the fat lizard, the birds, the squirrels, or the roof rats – that frequent the compost pile.  In any case, the tomato-plant eating didn't seem to affect the tomato harvest, as it mostly happened after the plants had set fruit.


Finally, this summer was hot and dry.  By some measures, the hottest summer on record.  Given that warm temperatures at night slow down and eventually stop tomato plants from setting fruit, a hot summer means a short tomato season.  In early June, the plants were covered with green tomatoes, but, as those tomatoes ripened, new green tomatoes did not appear in their place, so that by early July, the plants were almost bare of fruit.  By early July, the plants were also weary from lack of water.  I watered the plants deeply twice a week throughout the season, but all my watering couldn't make up for the lack of summer thunderstorms this year.  We only had two thunderstorms in the tomato season, one in mid May and one in mid June.  Every so many years, we have a rainy June with cooler temperatures, and then the tomato season is longer and more productive, favoring later-season tomatoes adapted to humid, milder conditions.  This year was the opposite, a short, fast, hot and dry season favoring early-season tomatoes and those adapted to hotter, drier conditions.

The first tomato to ripen this year was the Cupid Hybrid grape tomato.  I started eating grape tomatoes off the plant in mid May and soon was picking a small handful of tomatoes every day or two.  The plant continued to produce until mid July, though by then the fruits were smaller and infrequent.  We ate most of the grape tomatoes as snacks straight out of the bowl.  The tomatoes were sweet-tart with good texture and a slight pear shape.

Cupid Hybrid Grape Tomatoes

I think of the Porter tomato as the Texas workhorse tomato.  When I was new to gardening in Texas, a veteran gardener suggested that I get a Porter tomato at the upcoming plant sale because, regardless of how hot, or dry, or flooded, the upcoming summer proved to be, the Porter would produce.  She was right, the Porter tomato always produces, whether we're in stage four of the drought or recovering from the 100-year floods, so every year I try to find a Porter tomato plant to grow.  True to form, the Porter tomato won this season's endurance test.  It began making ripe tomatoes just after the grape-tomato plant in May and continued to make tomatoes into July.  In fact, the Porter tomato outlasted me this year – despite the hot temperatures and drought, the Porter was still setting fruit in early July when I decided that the tomato season was over.  When I pulled the plants, the Porter was by far the biggest plant in the row, having taken over its own space and also much of its neighbors' space.

Porter Tomatoes

So, if the Porter tomato is such a reliable workhorse, why grow any other tomato in Texas?  First, Porter tomatoes are small, "plum tomato" size, and therefore are not ideal for cooking because, in order to make a tomato sauce or soup from a batch of Porters, all of them would have to be skinned, which would be tedious.  Given their size, Porters are best eaten fresh, sliced in half or quartered into salads.  The other thing about Porters is that their taste is inconsistent.  I've heard that they are one of those tomatoes that are loved by some and hated by others, but I think the truth may be more that they are sweet and delicious some years but bland and mushy other years.  Porters are like the insurance policy of tomato growing in Texas – if June is rainy and cool, the Porters won't be great but also won't be much needed, but if it's 107˚ F with oven-like high-pressure winds, the Porters will still be producing garden-fresh tomatoes while all those fancy heirlooms fail to thrive.  This year, this brutally hot and dry year, the Porters were sweet and delicious.  For most of June and into July, I packed Porter tomato and basil pasta salads for lunch, then sliced Porters onto crackers to eat with cheddar and beer as a midnight snack when I got home from work.


Of the full-size tomatoes, the JD's Special C-Tex Early Black was the most productive in the early part of the season, in mid June.  JD's Special made lots of round, medium-sized tomatoes with dark-green shoulders on deep red fruits.  The tomatoes were very prone to cracking – most of the fruits had splits running down the tomato from the stem end or all the way around the tomato, circling the stem.  The cracking was worse following the June rainstorm, leading me to think that the JD's Special C-Tex Early Black tomato, specially bred for our central Texas summers (hence the "C-Tex"), is another tomato, like the Porter, meant to keep us in tomatoes even in the drought years.  I tried to minimize the impact of the cracking by harvesting the fruit early, as soon as the bottom part of the tomato was red, before the cracks were big enough to attract ants.  The ripening tomatoes were then prone to shriveling (around the cracks) and softening, even when the tomatoes were still green at the stem end.

JD's Special C-Tex Early Black Tomatoes

Because of the cracking, the JD's Special tomatoes were mainly cooking tomatoes this summer.  They were the tomatoes that I wanted to use first to prevent spoilage, the tomatoes that needed to have parts cut out of them, the tomatoes that became the basis for tomato sauce and tomato soup.  They did not peel easily, both due to the cracks and the under-ripeness of the top parts of many of the fruits at the time of cooking, but the dark red flesh cooked down into wonderful tomato goodness.  I feel a bit unfair defining those tomatoes so strongly on their splits given that the tomatoes themselves were actually quite juicy and delicious.  And given that the tomato sauce that I made from JD's Special tomatoes, along with a mix of other tomatoes from the garden, was one of the highlights of the tomato season.


The Sunmaster hybrid tomato, another tomato that was specifically bred for hot summers, was the most productive plant in the later part of this year's short season, in late June.  When the other tomatoes were slowing down, the Sunmaster had its heyday, producing many shiny, orange-red, medium-sized tomatoes.  In fact, of the tomatoes that I grew this year, the Sunmaster tomatoes were most like those in the produce section at the grocery store:  bright, shiny, red fruits, free of splits or blemishes, and long lasting.  By early July, the rows of to-be-eaten tomatoes on our kitchen table had dwindled down from a colorful mix of red, golden, striped, and dark-fruited tomatoes to just the red tomatoes, just the long-lasting Sunmasters.  The Sunmasters were also easy to peel, making them ideal for cooking or canning.  Compared to the other full-sized tomatoes, though, the Sunmasters had a fairly bland taste, which was not surprising given their uniformity and longevity.  A garden-fresh Sunmaster was still miles better, in flavor and especially in texture, than those grocery-store tomatoes.  Overall, given the productivity of the Sunmaster in the hot summer, its beautiful, long-lasting fruits, and the rich flavor of the tomatoes after being cooked down into sauce or soup or okra masala, I will be looking for a Sunmaster plant next spring.

Sunmaster Hybrid Tomatoes

The Cherokee Purple, an heirloom tomato known for producing delicious, dark-colored tomatoes, was the least productive tomato in my garden this year.  In fact, I only harvested three or four tomatoes from that plant.  They were delicious, with the fluted shape that I associate with the best tomatoes, but apparently Cherokee Purples don't like the oven-like heat of a hot year in central Texas because the plant was by far the smallest in the row.

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

The Old German, an heirloom tomato with huge, striped, yellow-orange-red tomatoes, was my favorite tomato of the season.  Sauces and soups and pasta salads aside, the real joy of the tomato season is simple tomato and toast:  toasted, buttered bread with fresh, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, nutritional yeast, and a drizzle of olive or flax oil.  Yum.  It's a snack that I enjoy year-round, even with greenhouse tomatoes, but with fresh tomatoes it is especially good, and with heirloom tomatoes, the kind that have seeds throughout their juicy flesh instead of in compartments like the modern hybrid tomatoes, it is dreamy.  This year, the clear tomato-and-toast winner, the tomato with the sweetest, juiciest flavor, was the Old German.  The easy-to-peel fruits of the Old German were also beautiful in cross-section, with golden, orange, peach, and red flesh that cooked down into a sweet, bright-orange sauce.  The Old German plant was not as productive as JD's Special or the Sunmaster in terms of number of fruits, but each tomato was heavy, so that each time I picked an Old German tomato I carried it carefully into the kitchen with that feeling of gardener pride, look what I grew!  The large fruits, which had splits from the stem end, were prone to molding once they had ripened on the kitchen table, so they needed to be eaten fairly quickly.  But needing to eat the Old German tomatoes was a lovely problem to have for a few weeks and, considering the heat of the summer, I was impressed that the Old German kept making its big tomatoes into the first week of July.

Old German Tomatoes

Finally, there was that yellow tomato on the end of the row.  This year I was clever and stuck the plant labels in the ground next to each tomato cage so that, in June, when harvesting, I would know what each plant was.  All of the tags survived except for that tomato on the west end of the row, the tomato planted in the biggest tomato cage in the deepest part of the new garden.  I was sure that it was a Celebrity tomato, a solid workhorse of a producer that grows huge, sprawling vines and makes many fruits, until I realized that its fruits were turning golden instead of red.  Then I looked for the tag and it was long gone, probably lost during mulching.  The plant itself was not sprawling but relatively contained considering its spot on the end of the row.  The plant also was the first of the row to wilt, possibly because it was on the west end of the row, with the harshest afternoon sun exposure.  In any case, it wasn't a Celebrity tomato.  Its fruits were medium-sized, heart-shaped, and golden yellow, and I would guess that it was an "early" tomato, given that, among the full-sized tomatoes, it was the first plant to make ripe tomatoes and the first plant, aside from the non-productive Cherokee Purple, to give up production in the name of heat.  The golden fruits were sweet, with the low-acid flavor of yellow tomatoes, very easy to peel, and had beautiful golden flesh.  Given what I observed about the plant, I think it was a Jubilee tomato plant, but I can't be sure that I didn't grow one-of-a-kind, accidental hybrid that snuck into somebody's greenhouse, given how readily tomatoes of unknown parentage sprout from my compost.

Jubilee (?) Tomatoes

4 comments:

  1. Awesome man very grateful blog. Really this blog Rocks

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  2. Good, detailed information- very helpful thank you! (Tomato hornworm btw)

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  3. Very nice piece, Margaret! I wonder if we may use your picture of Porter in our online seed catalog (http://sustainableseedco.com/heirloom-vegetable-seeds/), as it is a good representation and we have not yet had the opportunity to photograph it ourselves.

    Many thanks.

    Leyla Cabugos
    Sustainable Seed Company

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  4. I just wanted to inform you, in case you have not found out yet, the caterpillar you showed is a tomato hornworm and is VERY detrimental to your tomato crop. If you go out early or late in the day you will see them feeding on your plants. I do not know if anything will eat them. I know our chickens will not and I have never seen birds with any, even when they are trying to feed their nests of babies in the bird houses around our garden. My husband faithfully patrols our garden and promptly dispatches them for me. I would not move them anywhere except to the ground to stomp them!

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