Debbie Arrington

Head-scratching summer in the city of tomato farmers

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’s tomato season has been a summer of extremes. Gardeners either harvested a lot or a little – sometimes in the same month.

In a town where almost everyone grows at least one plant, tomatoes are a constant source of conversation. Which varieties did well – or perished in July’s heat wave? How big was your biggest heirloom – or did your tomatoes all seem small? When did you pick your first ripe slicer – or is it still hanging on the vine?

Prompted by a warm spring, our “Sacratomatoes” started bearing early, sputtered to a stop in triple-digit heat, then came back on strong.

This often-inconsistent crop became a head-scratcher.

“Although there are a lot of tomatoes this year in our garden, they seem to be smaller than usual,” said Sacramento radio host Farmer Fred Hoffman, a lifetime master gardener. “I’ve heard this from others as well. I’m not sure why. Also, I’m seeing a lot of cat facing, cracking, sunburn and solar yellowing. It’s probably due to too much sun!”

That’s ironic since tomato gardeners always want more sun, the key to ripe and abundant tomatoes.

“I guess planting in ‘full sun’ here nowadays needs an asterisk,” Hoffman noted. That asterisked note would read “may require shading during intense periods of light.”

Tomato growers cope with too much sun by rigging up impromptu shade for their precious plants. Old sheets or pieces of burlap get strung above tomato cages in an attempt to protect the fruit as it ripens.

Sunburn discolors tomatoes and makes them tough. On the side getting too much sun, the fruit can turn light brown or leathery. Also caused by high heat and high light intensity, “solar yellowing” is another kind of sunburn. The shoulders of the tomato (the top part near the stem) turn yellow or orange, not red, and stay green while the rest of the tomato ripens. Encouraging the plant to grow lush foliage produces enough leaves to shade the developing fruit.

Cat facing and cracking are related to high heat, too. The tomatoes are growing so fast on the vine, the fruit’s skin can’t keep up and cracks around the stem. Or it twists into odd shapes and cracks on the blossom end; that cat-facing trait is especially common in large heirloom varieties. Those problems can be alleviated by even soil moisture, say master gardeners. Keep the ground adequately moist and covered with mulch, which helps regulate soil temperature, too.

Mulch and steady irrigation go a long way in fighting blossom-end rot, another common malady this summer. A tan spot on the flower end of the tomato forms when there’s not available calcium, a side effect of inadequate soil moisture while the fruit is growing.

“After the drought experience, people know how to water better,” said Greg Gayton of Green Acres Nursery & Supply. “They’re watching their irrigation in the garden. Amending the soil (with compost or other organic nutrients) is a big thing, too; that helps your plants a lot.”

Like most nurserymen, Gayton hears when customers have problem plants. Tomatoes, for example, won’t set fruit when temperatures linger over 100 degrees.

“We had way, way too much heat,” Gayton said. “Then we heard about blossom-end rot or the tomatoes didn’t set fruit. Watering stress brought out invasions of aphids and whiteflies.

“With all that heat we had, I was really expecting to hear about a lot more disasters,” he added. “But that didn’t happen. It looks like this is going to be a pretty good tomato year.”

Green Acres’ best-selling tomatoes were the standards: Ace, Celebrity and Early Girl, Gayton said. “No. 1 was Sun Gold, but it always is; everybody wants candy in their garden. Heirlooms also were very popular.”

Scorching July heat may have slowed production and knocked some vines totally out. But that early August cool-down seems to have our tomato season back on track.

My own harvest is a case in point. A dozen varieties grow in my 10- by 12-foot plot at Fremont Community Garden. In mid-July, every tomato was precious; there were so few. By the first week in August, tomatoes were ripening en masse with a basket-full ready to pick every visit. The best producers have been Lemon Boy, Big Boy, Cherokee Carbon and Juliet.

Pete Frichette, Greenhaven’s tomato king, loves king-size tomatoes. He harvested his first 2-pounder of 2016 on Aug. 1 with more on its 11-foot vine. The variety, Aussie, is renowned for oversized heirlooms, but is stingy with its output.

“This same vine has a trellis of three tomatoes, each with a chance of surpassing the 2-pound mark,” Frichette said. “I have them covered with a piece of an old sheet to keep them from getting scalded.”

Tomatoes that size tend to need some extra support or they can drop right off the vine before fully ripe. They’re just too heavy for their narrow stems. Growers such as Frichette devise little hammocks or slings to cradle the hefty fruit while it ripens on the vine.

Frichette experiments with his tomatoes every year. While most Sacramento gardeners hold off until April, he starts planting in late February, but keeps adding more transplants until early May. He credits an early start for his bountiful harvest.

“I think that those backyard gardeners who want even a modicum of success must start earlier than the traditionalists expound,” Frichette said. “The home-grown compost in the (planting) hole seems to become even more important to those of us confined to (growing in) the same spot each year. With the intense heat we have been experiencing, a minimum of 4 inches of mulch is mandatory.

“One rewarding experiment this year was planting multiple Amish Paste plants in the same hole,” he noted. “I did this because this cultivar is very shy of growing many leaves. By grouping the plants together – four in one hole – I was able to solve the solar scalding and enjoyed a bountiful harvest of these tasty tomatoes. They are not really a paste tomato, though that did not set me back, as I have already peeled, chopped and frozen about five dinners’ worth.”

Because as any tomato gardener will tell you, it’s not just the tomatoes you enjoy fresh now, but the ones you put away for winter. That’s what adds up to a successful tomato year.

Show us your tomatoes

▪ How did your tomatoes grow? Post photos on the SacBee Garden Facebook page, www.facebook.com/sacbeegarden. Or email to: h&g@sacbee.com. Please include your name, hometown and tomato variety.

Coming Wednesday: Ideas for a bumper crop

▪ It’s time for tomato mania! How to make the most of your harvest – now and later. Find recipes, tips and more in Wednesday’s Food & Drink section.

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