Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Ripe tomatoes by July 4 weekend in Sacramento

Yaqui hybrid tomatoes, a large and blocky plum variety, near ripeness in late June in the Fremont Community Garden in Sacramento.
Yaqui hybrid tomatoes, a large and blocky plum variety, near ripeness in late June in the Fremont Community Garden in Sacramento.

This summer, Juliet won the race.

In my annual garden quest for vine-ripened tomatoes by Fourth of July, the first 2-inch mini-Roma tomato turned brilliant red June 25. Success!

OK, she’s not a slicer; it takes four Juliets to make one BLT. But I picked ripe tomatoes in June. As a Sacramento gardener, that’s pretty sweet.

While other folks may be thinking fireworks, Sacramento gardeners want to see red (and maybe orange, yellow and pink) in their tomato cages this weekend. After months of anticipation, that’s what gets us really excited. A ripe tomato for a holiday get-together gives us immediate bragging rights. (We’ll worry about size later.)

After the challenges of late spring hail and blast-furnace heat that these vines have been through, my tiny harvest qualifies as a small miracle, too. And it’s only the start.

Out of the dozen varieties I tried this season, several vines are loaded with rapidly growing green tomatoes. In particular, Yaqui – a hybrid plum tomato – appears outstanding. It’s loaded with blocky 4-inch tomatoes that look like over-sized eggs. The first will be ready for pizza sauce soon.

Stupice, a notoriously early potato-leaf heirloom out of the Czech Republic, appears on target to deliver the first round ripe tomatoes, but mostly because they ripen small, about 2 to 3 inches. Big Boy, a longtime hybrid favorite, already has green tomatoes the size of apples, but I’ll have to wait a week or two to slap one on a sandwich.

When you pick depends on when you plant. My tomato seedlings, most from 4-inch containers, went into the ground April 25. The varieties still taking their time include Aussie, Azoychka, Blush, Cherokee Carbon, Dixie Red, Lemon Boy, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye and Red Boar.

But with any luck (including favorable weather), that bunch will keep the tomatoes flowing well into October.

Like stone fruit, the local tomato harvest seems to be arriving early. By the first week of June, Sacramento farmers markets already featured big mounds of ripe tomatoes next to the plums, cherries and apricots.

John Harmon of Sacramento marveled at his backyard’s early harvest of plums and pluots, but his tomatoes reddened up quickly, too. On June 14, he picked his first red tomato, the appropriately named Fireworks, with many more to come this holiday weekend. Also ready in mid-June were Jetsetter Hybrid and Caro Rich.

“I planted in early April from seed starts planted in February in my greenhouse,” said Harmon, who grows his tomatoes mainly in containers. For fertilizer, he uses “lots of enzyme-digested bone meal and compost tea.”

Some gardeners risk weather-related disaster and plant extra early. For example, Sacramento tomato expert Pete Frichette started transplanting in February, then staggered his additions through March and April, with the last plants in the ground May 2.

Frichette began harvesting ripe tomatoes June 7, “but only three to five a day,” he said before this week’s triple-digit heat. “It’s been too cool, especially at night. The vines that are yielding are the two that were transplanted on Feb. 27.”

Frichette, who annually picks hundreds of tomatoes from his small Greenhaven garden, likes to try different techniques to see if he can up his already phenomenal yield. His vines grow 8 feet or more up custom steel cages created from wire concrete reinforcement mesh.

“(This season), I have experimented with mycorrhizal fungi from (brand) Down to Earth,” he said of the natural soil additive that help roots get more moisture and nutrients. “So far, it has shown a height differential between those that have it and those that do not. It seems like a good thing.”

Besides his beloved Early Girl and 2-pound Aussie tomatoes, Frichette added to his backyard assortment.

“I have two new cultivars in this year: the Mule Team and the Delicious,” he said. “The Mule Team because it was hyped as a late-season tomato with decent size and abundance. The Delicious, as it holds the record for the largest tomato ever grown. I’m hoping to get a 3-pounder this year.”

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