Debbie Arrington

Tomatoes don’t disappoint during drought

How to grow 2-pound tomatoes

Pete Frichette of Sacramento shows how he grows 2-pound Aussie heirloom tomatoes with less water during the California drought.
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Pete Frichette of Sacramento shows how he grows 2-pound Aussie heirloom tomatoes with less water during the California drought.

Sacramento gardeners judge summer success by tomatoes.

By mid-August, we have a pretty good idea how our individual tomato year is shaping up. Despite the drought, the summer of 2015 already has had its share of great tomato moments.

Weather, not water, has had a bigger impact on our tomato fortunes. Dry, warm spring temperatures coaxed us into planting extremely early, with mixed results. A June cool spell brought early blight (especially among finicky heirloom tomatoes). But many of us were harvesting Early Girls and cherry tomatoes by the first day of summer – weeks ahead of normal. Then, a record heat wave in late June and early July seemed to put the brakes on tomato production.

Through it all, our tomato plants have proven: We can still enjoy home-grown tomatoes with less water. We’ve also learned some varieties cope better than others.

Sacramento’s Pete Frichette, a local legend for his backyard tomato crop, keeps a watchful eye on his plants. He grows his tomatoes in large raised beds with four or five plants each. His small garden’s yield sets a standard among local amateur tomato growers.

I’ve cut

Pete Frichette, Sacramento tomato gardener

With irrigation cutbacks, the surrounding lawn in Frichette’s backyard is nearly dead, but his tomato vines are thriving. By Aug. 1, the vines all towered more than 7 feet tall, climbing up overhead arbors and heavy with fruit.

“Some of those branches are as thick as my wrist,” he said. “I get the vines I’ve got because I really work the soil and the roots. I work the soil way down, a couple of feet or more (adding compost and soil amendments). That builds strong roots, too.”

Those roots are key to healthy plants during drought; they can pull up as much water as they can reach.

“I’ve cut way back on water this year,” Frichette added. “I really am amazed. They’re getting just a fraction of what I used to give them and no surface irrigation at all. I thought I was going to have to supplement with more water on top, but no – nothing. And it doesn’t seem to slow them down.”

Frichette equipped each raised bed with 1/2-inch drip lines and .6 gallon per hour emitters, buried 12 inches deep. Surrounded by mulch, the vines get one hour of drip irrigation twice a week.

“The way the emitters are positioned, that adds up to about 2 gallons per plant each time or 4 gallons a week,” he said. “The system was very easy to put together. If you can cut a piece of PVC pipe, you can do it.”

Frichette also “fertigates” his plants with liquid fertilizer fed once a week via the drip system.

As he has for several years, Frichette grew his favorite “old reliable” varieties – Early Girl and Better Boy – with solid results. He also tried two heirlooms: Aussie, a giant beefsteak (from Gary Ibsen’s Tomato Fest and available online) and the oxheart-shaped Amish Paste.

While most of the tomatoes seemed to cope fine with the cutbacks, Super Marzano – his favorite paste tomato – lost several fruit to blossom-end rot, a malady that effects tomatoes in times of scarce water or inconsistent irrigation.

“It gets the same water as the Better Boy right next to it, but the Super Marzano is suffering,” he said.

Constantly experimenting, Frichette tracks quantity as well as quality. This season, he transplanted his first vines into the ground on Feb. 18 – more than two months earlier than Sacramento’s traditional tomato planting date. Grown from seed, the Aussies went in the ground April 19. So far, he’s harvested hundreds of tomatoes including a few giant heirlooms.

“Every growing year seems to be unique,” observed Frichette, who lives next to one of Greenhaven’s little lakes. “This one is no exception. We seem to have encountered a lull.”

A spike of hot weather including a 107-degree day on June 30 likely caused tomatoes to abort their newly pollinated blossoms or prevented those flowers from being pollinated at all, Frichette theorized. Bees and other pollinators probably took a break in triple-digit heat. The plants may have just dropped the flowers, too.

“I picked 207 tomatoes off of my lead Better Boy by the end of July,” Frichette said. “It has green tomatoes all over, but they are at least two weeks out, and it’s similar to most of the rest of my vines. It seems as though something must have occurred toward the beginning of July that thwarted the blossoming and setting of fruit. ... I have spoken with two other gardeners that are experiencing the same phenomenon.”

While the Better Boys and Early Girls took a break, Frichette’s Aussies kept chugging along. That took his mind off the mid-summer dip in overall production.

In mid-July, the Aussie vines delivered a 36-ounce whopper (yes, 2-pound, 4-ounces). “It was the biggest tomato I had ever grown,” Frichette said.

Cut open, the heirloom tomato proved to be almost solid meat. A single slice covered a piece of bread – perfect for BLTs. Not only did it have size, this unusual tomato also had complex flavor to match.

But that was just the start. In late July, Frichette harvested a pair of Aussies that each weighed a shade under the 2-pound mark. The first week of August, he picked another 2-pound Aussie.

“That’s only the second 2-pounder of my life,” said Frichette, who has grown several large heirloom varieties such as Mortgage Lifter.

Growing a foot off the ground, this monster Aussie tomato was as fat as a cantaloupe. Its blossom end contorted in overlapping folds, formed as the giant grew bigger and bigger.

“You can tell it’s an heirloom because it’s got that ugly butt,” Frichette said with a chuckle. “Their bottoms aren’t smooth and round. They won’t win a beauty contest.”

Fortunately, their flavor makes up for their odd looks. And one tomato can feed a crowd.

“I love the taste,” said Anne Frichette, Pete’s wife. “They don’t have a lot of seeds and they have a very mild flavor. We’re trying to save some seeds, so we can grow them again next year.”

Pete Frichette of Sacramento shows how he grows 2-pound Aussie heirloom tomatoes with less water during the California drought.

Show us your tomatoes

What’s happening in your garden? We want to know – and see. Send us snapshots of your tomatoes and other garden successes (peppers, squash, flowers, fruit, etc.). Tell us a little about what you planted (particularly varieties and planting date, if applicable) and yourself (including name and hometown).

E-mail your photos along with any comments about your 2015 harvest and drought-coping experiences to: h&g@sacbee.com. Please include in the subject line “SacBee Garden.” Or mail to: SacBee Garden, Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento, CA 95816. Deadline for submission is Aug. 31.

We’ll compile the best of our collective gardens for a portrait of Summer 2015 for publication in Home & Garden and online in September.

Meanwhile, you can also post your photos and garden stories to our SacBee Garden Facebook page, www.facebook.com/SacBeeGarden.

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