My Precious Tomatoes

A rainbow of fall tomatoes.

My compulsion to garden began with my quest to grow an abundance of tomatoes. I didn’t even like tomatoes until I was about 22 years old. The first time I remember loving the flavor of a freshly-picked, salted tomato was when I lived in Chicago working my first post-college job. I visited friends in Champagne one weekend and bought tomatoes at the farmers’ market. That first bite of beautifully ripe tomato was like heaven on a plate and since then I’ve been hooked. Two years after that tasty bite, I moved to Michigan—where the climate is just right for tomato growing.

My first garden was a success in Michigan, which has a much milder climate than North Central Texas. The harsh Texas summers and drought conditions make gardening a challenge. I decided to approach the objective from a different angle by looking for the best-performing vegetable varieties for my area.

I consulted the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service’s list of recommendations but only found a few tomato varieties for sale at local vendors– Celebrity, Beefsteak and Big Boy are the most commonly available. So I started looking to seed sources and catalogs, hoping to find varieties that would grow well where I lived. Over the last few years, I’ve amassed quite an assortment of seed stock and catalogs. The more I learned about the plentiful tomato varieties, the more intrigued I became with open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of all plants, not just tomatoes.

Peppers: Jalapenos and Serranos

Even though Texas “technically” has a long growing season, the hottest part of the summer is about keeping things alive, not producing. So really we have two short growing seasons with fall being best of all. In the spring I try to grow bush-type tomatoes that ripens (55-70 days) all at once. In July I pull the spent vines and start seeds in the same beds. What sprouts and makes it will produce the best fall fruit. If a volunteer tomato comes up, I let it grow. Every time I’ve done that, it’s produced the most awesome fruit.

After three trial-and-error growing seasons of starting tomatoes from seed, I’ve found that Porter and Porter Improved are the top performing tomato cultivars in my backyard; Willhite Seed has the highest germination rate of all the sources I’ve used; and when a volunteer tomato plant starts growing, let it grow because you will be rewarded for it.

My favorite resources:

Texas Agri-Life Extension http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ — a great resource for all Texas gardeners. If you live in a different state, look for your local extension service. It will be affiliated with the land grant university in your state (Auburn, Michigan State, University of Illinois, Purdue, Texas A&M, etc.)

Willhite Seed
www.willhiteseed.com – everything I’ve ever grown from this supplier has been top notch. They breed their own watermelon seeds! The first year I grew their Porter tomatoes, I had a 98 percent germination rate – that is quality seed!

Botanical Interests
www.botanicalinterests.com – this company is part of the coalition of non-GMO growers and suppliers of seed. They have the best information on their seed packets – tons of information about each variety and cultivar.

Totally Tomatoes
www.totallytomato.com – the 2013 growing season is the first year I’ve used seeds from this supplier. So far so good. They have the most comprehensive selection of tomatoes I’ve ever seen. They also have a wonderful selection of other seeds, especially night shade plants (tomatoes are part of the night shade family).

RH Shumway
www.rhshumway.com – this company has the coolest retro-style catalogue and is one of the best sources for beans. 2013 is the first growing season I’ve used this seed provider. The germination rate has been excellent. It will be awhile before I can report on production.

Victory Seeds www.victoryseeds.com – one of the best sources for open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that grow in most parts of the United States. They produce their own seeds and are a non-GMO seed source.

Baker Creek (rare seeds) www.rareseeds.com – another comprehensive source for heirloom, open-pollinated and non-GMO seeds. I have not grown any seed from this supplier but they have great reviews.

Garden Calamities, Bad Kids and More Bad Dogs

Garden Calamities, Bad Kids and More Bad Dogs

7 to 10 days ago I planted a few rows of spring plants that are space-savers—ideal for my intensive gardening plan. These are also the plants that give you quick pay-off in terms of gardening—radishes, mesclun, rocket (aka arugula), spinach and carrots. All sprout quickly and can be harvested between 25-45 days.  A super-speedy turnaround considering our beloved tomatoes can take up to 90 days to mature.

Planting a sorta-early spring garden...

These quick-return crops have already started to show signs of life … this photo was taken on Monday, 7 days after they were planted.  

Showing signs of life.

See the little sprouts coming up … I have no idea what this is because I didn’t properly label my rows – oh well. I will be able to identify them once they get past the initial phase of sprouting.  

Then Tuesday, I started writing this piece and decided to take photos showing progress.  I went out to the garden to take photos, but there was evidence of a minor Garden Calamity.

Evidence of a very bad dog.

A big dog print in my raised bed …  I only planted half of one raised bed and that is the only place the dog tromped thru. Of course it’s right in the middle of a planted row.

 I still didn’t get the story finished, so after work on Wednesday, I went to take another progress photo.

Then another Garden Calamity struck … usually when that happens it has to do with a bad dog. Yesterday it had to do with a kid … my 4-yr old son came into the house and declared: “I water momma’s flowlers. I help jew, mom.” I didn’t think a lot of it, but then walked out to see what he was talking about.

Seedlings almost washed away by a 4-yr old.

Holy Garden Calamity, Batman! I don’t’ think 4-yr olds understand that you can’t put the sprinkler wand/spray head thingy right up next to the seedlings. And this story has changed drastically since the initial draft, due to Garden Calamities.

Bad kid, good kid? Definitly a cute kid!

More to come on tomatoes and spring gardening in North Texas… I’m dying to plant my tomatoes, but the old farmers say, “thunder in February, frost in April.” And we had thunder in February along with a frozen foot of snow and ice that cancelled school for a week. I’m going to wait a few more days on planting my tomatoes. Hopefully I can avoid future Garden Calamities.

96 tomato plants ... almost ready for a North Texas garden home!