February 25, 2021
Texas gardeners can suffer from tomato envy. “By golly,” we ask ourselves, “If everyone else has such luck, what is wrong with ME? I must be a total failure, right?”
Wrong! Late frosts, early heat, and humidity twist our tomato tails. “We are not failures!” claims Sheryl Williams, Travis County Master Gardener and Horticulture Program Assistant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension-Austin.
So, Sheryl hooked up with CTG to hit the basics that she learned as a new transplant from the Pacific Northwest. We taped this segment on March 6, 2020, never realizing it would be the last one recorded in historic Studio 6A at Austin PBS on the UT campus. Coronavirus shuttered us all the next week. Ultimately, I edited this at home (with colleague Paul Sweeney) and here we are, almost a year later. In a few months, we’ll move to our new home at ACC Highland Mall and record new programs once the pandemic is corralled.
Although tomatoes need warm temperatures, they’re not fans of our extreme heat. “The pollen produced on the flower anthers will actually become sterile if nighttime temperatures exceed 75°,” Sheryl said.
Pollen also may become unviable if prolonged daytime temperatures exceed 90°. And if it’s over 70% humidity, the pollen becomes sticky and won’t fall properly, so the flower won’t be fertilized.
To beat the heat, some risk-takers plant the first few weeks of March. Others grab favorite varieties in 4” containers and keep them in protected warmth, potting up to larger containers to develop stronger roots. Even if we plant in late March or early April, the past few weeks certainly reminded us that Texas weather is tricky. We dive from balmy 80-ish temperatures to freezing in mere hours, so be ready to protect if temps drop below 50 degrees.
First thing to determine: indeterminate or determinate variety! Determinate tomatoes—bush tomatoes—grow to a more compact height, usually under 4’. They set fruit all at once and then they’re done. Roma tomatoes are a common one, often used to can for sauces.
There’s also a small ‘Patio’ hybrid good for containers.
“Indeterminate tomatoes grow until they killed by frost or some other external factor. Many heirloom and cherry tomato varieties are indeterminate tomatoes,” Sheryl said.
These tomatoes definitely require staking or caging!
You can make cattle panel cages reinforced with T-Posts or rebar.
In the Marble Falls Helping Center garden, reinforced tomato cages and a cattle panel arch support cantaloupes and tomatoes. Watch our story!
Reinforce standard tomato cages, too. At The Natural Gardener, I spotted this bamboo and T-stake rendition one year.
Watch CTG’s video about how San Antonio cinder block gardeners Richard Alcorta and Christine Cunningham twine up their tomatoes.
Sweet-tasting cherry tomatoes are easy to grow and just keep on producing! Prolific orange-colored Sun Gold is a favorite that Sheryl’s found to tolerate a wide range of heat and cold.
Extension tests have found that indeterminate varieties Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Juane Flamme, Stupice, Juliet, Sun Gold, and Yellow Pears all perform reasonably well.
When we visited Susan and Matt Snyder’s garden, they told us that their Paul Robeson tomatoes produce so well that they have plenty to share, can, and freeze.
Jana Beckham and Don Iden often start tomato seeds inside to grow Roma, Celebrity, Sun Gold and Patio tomatoes. Here’s our video.
Heirloom Black Cherry tomatoes always top the list at Sunshine Community Gardens’ summertime tomato tastings (not being held this pandemic year).
Get their ratings for every variety they grow in their greenhouses.
This March, they’re not holding their popular annual sale, but get Sunshine guy Randy Thompson’s favorite tomato and pepper varieties along with Sunshine’s tomato tricks.
AND here’s great news! The Austin Organic Gardeners are holding an online plant sale. Members, including Erin Hollis, started lots of vegetable seeds weeks ago to get your gardens growing this spring.
Pre-order here (online on Friday, Feb. 26) for contactless pickup locations around Austin on March 21. They’ve got 182 tomatoes (all tried-and-true varieties for us), peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, and leafy greens. They also sourced native plants from Ecosystem Regeneration Artisans and herbs (always the best) from wholesale nursery Gabriel Valley Farms.
Great books to grow with
Grow Great Texas Vegetables: Trisha Shirey
Texas Fruit & Vegetable Gardening: Greg Grant
The Texas Tomato Lover’s Handbook: Bill Adams (now retired Extension horticulturist)
Gregarious Bill joined us on CTG with his expert tips from soil and fertilizer to planting.
Plus, watch his yummy tomato superstars tasting review at CTG with Tom Spencer.
And now, watch Sheryl and her on-target tips to pep us up after this brutal weather hit. Let’s spring on!
Thanks for stopping by! See you next week with our interview with Bernardine and Conrad Bering of Barton Springs Nursery, Linda