Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Too early for tomatoes? Depends on who you ask

Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard refers to his Oak Park backyard as his “tomato research station.” He’s tested 107 varieties for taste, sweetness and acidity.
Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard refers to his Oak Park backyard as his “tomato research station.” He’s tested 107 varieties for taste, sweetness and acidity.

Call it an outbreak of early tomato fever.

Warm March weather tempted many Sacramento gardeners to jump the calendar and plant tomatoes – four to six weeks ahead of suggested planting dates. More often than not, those extra early tomatoes will just sit there – chilling, not growing – until the soil temperature warms up, too.

Of course, there are exceptions. For example, Sacramento’s Peter Frichette always likes to get a big head start on his summer tomato garden. Last year on Feb. 18, he planted three tomato plants – a Better Boy and two Early Girls. (For most Sacramento gardeners, April 28 is the norm.) From the Better Boy, he harvested 272 tomatoes – 63 pounds! Living up to their name, the two Early Girls yielded 540 tomatoes combined.

This season, Frichette waited a little later, but not much. His first vines – one Better Boy, one Early Girl – went in the ground Feb. 27. He’ll be planting more vines and varieties throughout the spring. In his Greenhaven garden, he plants them directly in improved soil, not raised beds.

Chuck Rickard, another avid Sacramento tomato grower, prefers to wait before setting out his tomatoes.

“I did a lot of experimenting last year,” Rickard said. “What I found is replanting (seedlings) is really important.”

Instead of putting 4-inch seedlings directly into the garden, he transplants them into 1-gallon black pots. In these larger containers, the baby tomato plants get the benefits of warm spring weather and develop stronger roots. But in case of a late March hail storm or other freaky cold weather, he can move them to safety without harm.

“Roots are the most important thing for tomato planting success,” Rickard explained. “In less than two weeks after transplanting, their roots reach the edges of that 1-gallon container. They’ll already have a good start when you put them in the ground. Then, they’ll really take off.”

Part of the Oak Park Crop Swap, Rickard takes a studious approach to tomatoes. He’s grown 107 varieties in his backyard, which he refers to as his “tomato research station.” With the help of 300 volunteer testers over six years, he’s rated tomatoes for taste, sweetness and acidity. His findings are now available online on his new “Sac Tomato Report” website.

“If you’re going to make that effort – and use all that water – do it right,” Rickard said.

In Rickard’s tests, the highest rated tomatoes were Momotaro (a popular Japanese red with 6-ounce fruit) and Cherokee Purple (a dark-hued large heirloom). They were followed closely by Amana Orange, Black Zebra, Fourth of July, German Orange Strawberry and Red Brandywine.

107Varieties of tomatoes tested by Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard

Among his findings was that “low-acid” yellow, orange or pink tomatoes were just as acidic as their bright red cousins or close to it. Their natural sweetness made these varieties taste less acidic, but the pH level was still there.

Using a Hanna test meter, Rickard found that such varieties as Aunt Jinny’s Purple, Anna Russian, Striped German, Jaune Flamme and Dr. Wyche’s Yellow all measured 4.0 – or high – on the pH scale. (The lower the number, the higher the acidity; 7.0 is considered neutral.) Such varieties as German Johnson, Caspian Pink, Amana Orange, Goldie and Gold Medal tested between 4.2 and 4.7. (By comparison, Better Boy and Cherokee Purple are both 4.2.)

“That’s what I found really interesting,” Rickard said of his research. “There were highs and lows, but the difference was a very narrow range.”

Rickard also taste-tested supermarket and farmers market tomatoes against homegrown. Not surprisingly, the homegrown tomatoes ranked much higher than their purchased counterparts.

It proved an important point for Sacramento tomato gardeners, he said.

“If you want a really good tomato, you need to grow it yourself,” Rickard said, “or get another grower to give you one.”

Get Sacramento Tomato Report

▪ Chuck Richard’s Sacramento tomato tasting results and other notes are now available online. The report includes such topics as judging beefsteaks versus heirlooms as well as evaluations of acidity, sweetness and actual days until harvest. In addition, Rickard evaluated 50 varieties of peppers.

To read his full report, go to