Preparing your Central Texas Tomato Garden
Preparing your Central Texas Tomato Garden
There’s nothing like the taste of a fresh, ripe tomato grown and picked from your Central Texas home garden. There are many things to consider in order to ensure you get a healthy, flavorful crop of tomatoes.
The first step to growing tomatoes in Central Texas is to mix the soil with plenty of compost or other organic nutrients. You can add organic fertilizer to the new soil mix, as it won’t burn delicate new roots. Chemical fertilizers can harm young seedlings and should be avoided altogether in my opinion.
For heavy clay soil you may want to consider growing in raised beds, as well-drained soil is needed. Tomatoes should be planted in full sun, at least six hours a day or more. If they are to have any shade, late afternoon shade is best.
Heirlooms vs Hybrid
Many home gardeners are very passionate, siding strongly on either the heirloom or hybrid side of the (garden) fence. I say to plant what works best for you, or better yet, just try some of both and see what you prefer. Unfortunately, while hybrids may have vigor, they can fall a bit short in flavor.
Heirlooms are also open-pollinated, which means they produce seeds that are genetically true to type, tasting and looking the same as their parents, as long as they are properly isolated from other tomato varieties (at least 30-plus feet apart). However, if these heirloom plants are not isolated to deter cross-pollination, then the saved seeds would result in a hybrid, tasting and looking slightly different than last year’s crop. For some of the best heirlooms, try ‘Black Krim,’ ‘San Marzano,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Lucid Gem.’
Hybrids (not to be confused with GMOs) have been intentionally bred to have specific traits from each of their “parents.” Hybrid tomatoes often show better-than-average vigor, more uniform production and (perhaps) higher yields. Many have also been bred for resistance to common diseases or pest issues. For hybrids that grow well in Central Texas, try ‘Super Fantastic,’ ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Better Boy’ and ‘Tycoon.’
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Determinate: Also called bush tomatoes, these plants stay more compact and produce all of their fruit in a one- to two-week period. These varieties often produce an early crop, don’t need a lot of staking or support, and are great for container gardening. Try ‘Early Girl,’ ‘Roma’ and ‘Black Sea Man.’
Indeterminate: These plants can get pretty big, vining up to 10 feet, requiring support to keep them off the ground. They also have the ability to be prolific long-term producers, continuing to produce fruit spring into summer and even through fall until they’re killed by frost. Try ‘Sweet 100,’ ‘Sun Gold,’ ‘Yellow Pear’ and ‘Juliet.’
Most every tomato you buy will have a “days to harvest” of somewhere between 55 and 90 days. Because we typically have a short growing season in between the average last frost (mid- to late March) until we see summer-like blistering heat, it’s best to plant varieties that will produce fruit before it gets hot. Another way to avoid both the lingering frost and the impending damaging heat is to get early season tomato seeds started indoors in a sunny window (or under a grow light) six to eight weeks before you plan on transplanting them outside.
Most tomatoes produce best at temperatures between 65 degrees and 90 degrees F. In Central Texas, on hot, humid days above 92 degrees, many tomato flowers will start to drop without producing any fruit. Some hybrids and heirlooms are better adapted at producing fruit when temperatures reach 95 degrees to 97 degrees. For hybrids try ‘Solar Fire,’ ‘Solar Set,’ ‘Sun Fire,’ and for heirlooms ‘Tommy Toe,’ ‘Texas Wild’ and ‘Creole.’
Texas A&M’s Vegetable Garden Planting Guide advises gardeners to get their fall tomato transplants in the ground between July 7 and August 7. Larger transplants in 1 gal. pots or larger can be planted as late as Sept.1.
Some prefer to plant determinate, heat-set tomatoes for fall. Varieties such as Bob Cat, Celebrity, and BHN 444 can crop in under 80 days, making them perfect for fall planting. Celebrity, an all-time backyard favorite, acts as a semi-indeterminate, producing longer if frosts come later than average.
July is also the perfect time to plant cherry type tomatoes – which have no problem setting fruit in the heat. Some favorites include Sweet 100, Juliet and Sun Gold. For your fall tomato garden, choose a sunny location with good drainage, and be sure to add plenty of compost and slow release organic fertilizer.
A fertilizer of mycorrhizae, humic acid, crab shell, worm castings, kelp, soy meal, and composted poultry litter, making it a great choice for gardeners. Adding dolomite lime (calcium and magnesium) also helps to prevent blossom end rot, a common tomato fruit malady.
Keeping your newly transplanted seedlings watered is a must. Moist but not soggy is the ideal. Planting in trenches or craters helps to direct water down to the root zone instead of running off and away from the plant.
Providing newly transplanted seedlings with some afternoon shade for the first two weeks can really help them to establish a strong root system.