Home & Garden

Growing bountiful tomatoes a Sacramento tradition, obsession

With more than 200 tomato varieties featured in the W. Atlee Burpee & Co. 2016 catalog, one standout is the SteakHouse, a gigantic hybrid that outsells every other seed in Burpee’s vast inventory. “SteakHouse averages 2.8 to 3 pounds per fruit,” says George Ball, the company’s chairman and CEO.
With more than 200 tomato varieties featured in the W. Atlee Burpee & Co. 2016 catalog, one standout is the SteakHouse, a gigantic hybrid that outsells every other seed in Burpee’s vast inventory. “SteakHouse averages 2.8 to 3 pounds per fruit,” says George Ball, the company’s chairman and CEO. Burpee Seeds

Too many tomatoes? Never in Sacramento.

In the Big Tomato, that summer staple is a year-round passion. If not picking ripe heirlooms or munching on candy-sweet Sun Golds, we’re thinking about which varieties we’ll plant next.

While browsing through seed catalogs or nursery websites, our gardening daydreams are filled with hefty 2-pound toms and prolific vines that never stop producing. We compare notes with other gardeners on yields and taste.

Then, we plant some more.

While it will be a few months before we bite into the first fresh home-grown tomatoes of the season, February is tomato seed planting time, a task best done indoors. From those little sprouts will come (hopefully) many pounds of flavorful produce. In anticipation of making 2016 the best tomato year ever, we asked local and national tomato experts for their favorite varieties, recommendations for beginners and key advice.

New varieties

For gardeners nationwide, tomatoes rank as the No. 1 backyard crop. That’s no surprise to George Ball, chairman and CEO of seed catalog giant W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Fabulous-sounding new tomato varieties annually star in Burpee’s famous catalog, tempting gardeners with their improved attributes. (Find them at www.burpee.com.)

With more than 200 tomato varieties featured in the 2016 catalog, one stands out as Burpee’s overall best-seller – SteakHouse. Debuting in 2014, this gigantic hybrid outsells every other vegetable or flower seed in Burpee’s vast inventory.

“SteakHouse averages 2.8 to 3 pounds per fruit,” Ball said. “When you cut into it, it’s like carving a prime rib. It’s pure red flesh and incredibly delicious.”

Featured this year are two new improvements of familiar favorites: Madame Marmande is a hybrid variation of the French heirloom Marmande, best known as the “stuffing tomato.” Its hollow inside is made for filling with soft cheese.

“It’s a huge improvement on the old Marmande,” Ball said. “We really souped it up. We hybridized it, gave it disease resistance, made it earlier bearing with greater size – it fits more cheese.”

But its appeal is about more than cheese filling.

“This really is a breakthrough tomato,” Ball said. “It has all the qualities of a good French heirloom, but it’s quite a bit tastier and with a better aroma, too.”

Cherry Baby is for gardeners who can never have enough cherry tomatoes. This new hybrid produces them by the hundreds during a long growing season.

“It’s a spectacularly prolific cherry tomato,” Ball said. “It’s sweet but still has some acidity; it’s quite delicious. It’s become a nonstop picking favorite at our test farm. It’s like Old Faithful with a constant flow of fruit cascading off these stems. It’s the most high-yielding cherry tomato I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen dozens.”

Old favorites

Sacramento radio host “Farmer” Fred Hoffman annually grows many varieties of tomatoes in his large garden in Herald. Each season, he keeps copious notes on their performance.

“Out of 37 tomato varieties grown here, the best overall tomato performer in 2015 was Striped German,” Hoffman said. “The outer skin is a combination of red, orange and yellow. Slice this heirloom beefsteak open, and the colors are downright psychedelic. It has great flavor; very juicy, excellent for that BLT sandwich. Most of all, it stayed productive from July through October. And big – 24 ounces.”

Hoffman particularly values tomatoes that can extend the fresh season into late fall.

“As Thanksgiving approached, I gave thanks for those tomato plants that were still productive to extend the BLT season,” Hoffman said. That list includes Lemon Boy, Sweet Million, Italian Roma, Big Beef, Legend and Red Rose.

Bill and Venus Bird garden – and garden blog – together in Natomas. They’ve tested hundreds of tomato varieties.

Of all those tested tomatoes, one stands out for Venus Bird. “Santa Clara Canner,” she said. “It reminds me of home.”

“My most recent favorites have come from the Brad Gates collection at Wild Boar Farms,” Bill Bird said.

Originally based in Suisun Valley, Wild Boar Farms calls St. Helena home. It produces tomatoes for many of Napa Valley’s best restaurants as well as providing seed and starts to gardeners.

Milt Whaley, a former Bee journalist turned full-time farmer, grows tomatoes in Pleasant Grove for local farmers markets and restaurants. He’s also a big Brad Gates fan.

“Brad is the guy who gave the world the Berkeley Tie Dye tomato, and he’s come up with some great tomatoes over the years,” Whaley said. “My current favorite tomato is the Dragon’s Eye. It’s a 2- to 4-ounce variety from Brad Gates; multicolored, grows in clusters of three or four. It’s a great tomato because it’s eye-catchingly beautiful in all stages of ripening, and it goes through an amazing taste change from acidy to sweet, which is palatable from beginning to end. And it has good hang time.

“Everyone loves these tomatoes. They definitely have a big production peak and then taper, but mine kept producing well into October.”

Pete Frichette, Sacramento’s Mr. Tomato, grows hundreds of pounds of tomatoes in raised beds in his tiny Greenhaven backyard. He gravitates to varieties that produce a lot of tomatoes, the bigger the better.

“If I had to do only three varietals, I would choose Better Boy, Early Girl and Aussie, in that order,” Frichette said. “The Better Boy comes first as it is a great producer, decent size and sets early, then keeps on producing. The Early Girl is about the first to maturity and keeps on producing. The Aussie, of course, is due to size and taste.”

Frichette also keeps careful track of his tomatoes. An heirloom, the Aussie produces gigantic tomatoes – often 1 to 2 pounds apiece – but not many of them.

“The Aussie only gave me on average 27 tomatoes per vine,” he said. “In contrast, the others yielded close to 200 tomatoes per vine.”

Beyond red

Tomatoes of a different color have caught gardeners’ interest big time. We want more yellow, orange, black, purple, pink, green and multicolored tomatoes.

But how do they grow and, more importantly, taste?

“I like Black Krim and Cherokee Purple,” Burpee’s Ball said. “Those are good heirlooms.”

“The Lemon Boy VFN Hybrid tomato performed well here in 2015, producing well into November,” Hoffman said. “The Orange Jubilee (also called Jubilee or Golden Jubilee) is another yellow-orange, good-performing, full-size tomato.”

Bill Bird also is a Lemon Boy fan. It produces every year, regardless of weather.

“If I’m looking for guaranteed production, a yellow tomato that does well in both good and ‘just OK’ tomato-growing years, my absolute favorite is Lemon Boy,” Bird said.

“Another really good yellow variety – with a red blush – is Livingston’s Golden Queen. And I can’t say enough about Azoychka, which I will be planting again this spring.”

Venus Bird recommends a yellow-orange heirloom originally grown by Thomas Jefferson in 1781: Persimmon. “It has damn good flavor,” she said.

Bill Bird is particularly fond of a much more modern Brad Gates introduction.

“Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye is probably my most favorite tomato,” he said, “but that yellow-white streak Pork Chop is a real taste test winner in the garden.”

Whaley also recommends Pork Chop. “That’s my big gold, about 8 to 10 ounces,” he said.

Yellow, gold and orange tomatoes tend to have less acid than their all-red counterparts. This gives them an interesting taste profile.

“Jaune Flamme is a superb gold/orange tomato,” Whaley said. “It actually ends up orange and goes through a long gold stage. It’s small, 2 to 4 ounces in clusters of up to six. It’s a vigorous grower – always my first and last producer. It’s disease-resistant, with minimal cracking and a slight red blush when you slice through it, with a very balanced flavor. It’s great in salads and super for sauce. This is one of the few tomatoes I grow every single year.

“Another commendable gold/orange tomato is AAA Sweet Solano, It’s similar in size to Jaune Flamme and has been winning me over with its citrusy flavor.”

Which ripens first?

Almost as much fun as picking a wide variety of tomatoes is holding bragging rights for the first ripe tomato among gardening friends. Some varieties such as Early Girl really do beat others to the table because they need fewer days to reach maturity and can fully ripen while late spring overnight temperatures remain chilly.

“I conducted a race in 2015 among eight contenders for the title, ‘Earliest Producer of Full-Size Tomatoes,’ ” Hoffman said. “The winner was Polar Star. It produced tennis ball-sized tomatoes in late June. Polar Star would be a good choice as an early season tomato for a large container, as well. The plant topped out at about 3 feet tall.”

Keys to success

Why do some gardeners seem to grow tons of tomatoes while others barely harvest a few?

“The key to success is something we cannot control,” Bill Bird said. “We are blessed with the best tomato growing conditions in the continental United States. Hot summer days encourage exponential growth and the cooling caress of our famous Delta breeze at night makes those fast-growing plants set fruit at record numbers. Every tomato grower has time-proven methods to encourage record harvests, but I believe our success is the weather we’ve been blessed to receive.”

With that in mind, remember: Tomatoes love sun. Plant them in the sunniest part of the garden.

“Of course the key to growing success is simple: lots of sun, at least 10 hours,” Whaley said. “I think that’s the one big thing we need for the very best harvest. Full sun is best, but then in our climate, they need protection on the hotter days. This year, I’m going to grow a patch under a 50 percent shade screen that can be easily moved.”

It’s not the direct sun but the intense summer heat that can be problematic.

“I’ve read that tomatoes like a high of 86 degrees and low of 50 for ideal growing conditions,” Whaley said. “If we had that here in Sacramento, we wouldn’t need to protect them from the sun. But when it gets really hot, over 90 or 95, blossoms will die and drop off rather than produce a fruit, so that’s where a little shade can help, as well as preventing sunburn.”

Frichette also urged growers to plant their tomatoes in locations that maximize their sun exposure.

Next, make sure it’s planted in a deep hole, a minimum of 12 inches deep. That gives its roots some room to grow.

“I dig down a minimum of 24 inches for each of my plants, then mix some mulch and fertilizer into the extracted soil before replacing it into the hole,” Frichette said. “Do mix in a balanced fertilizer and don’t over water. Two gallons (per plant) every third day will suffice.”

Help for beginners

Longtime tomato growers know some varieties are easier to grow than others – and perfect for beginning tomato gardeners.

“I start tomato plants from seed, in bulk, for a local farmer whose sells the tomatoes at area farmers markets,” Hoffman said. “He always wants more Ace 55 and Jubilee tomato starts, because they are easy to grow and produce loads of good looking, tasty, full-size tomatoes.

“Besides those two, I might recommend for beginners a can’t-miss cherry tomato – Sweet Million. It overtook Sun Gold as the most productive cherry tomato in our garden in 2015. Heck, grow them both for a colorful salad.”

Bill Bird also recommends a cherry variety such as Sweet 100 or Sun Gold for beginning gardeners, especially if they’re growing tomatoes in pots or containers.

“I also would recommend at least one can’t-fail hybrid like Better Boy or Early Girl and as many heirloom varieties that can be crammed into the same area,” he said.

The individual heirloom vines may not bear that much fruit, but grown together they offer lots of variety.

Frichette loves his Early Girl and recommends that dependable variety for beginners, too.

“Early Girl does not seem to need any special attention, nor does it seem as susceptible to blossom-end rot (a common problem during drought) as many of the other varietals are,” Frichette said.

Another plus: It’s not only early but keeps producing until a frost.

For both experienced and beginning gardeners, Whaley recommends Jaune Flamme and Black Cherry. “Both are vigorous growers, big and long producers and great tasting,” he said. “For a larger tomato, I would go with Cherokee Green or Cherokee Chocolate, both good producers with tantalizing looks and nice flavor profiles.”

Venus Bird urged beginners to take risks – that’s what the Birds did when they started gardening.

“Don’t rely on so-called ‘experts’; do what you want – try it,” she said. “Have fun. It’s OK to fail. Most likely, you’ll succeed because it’s Sacramento, and it’s hard to really (mess) up tomatoes that bad here.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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