March in Central Texas means wildflowers, South by Southwest, spring break and tomatoes. As soon as the temperatures start to warm up, all the garden centers are stocked with tomato transplants, and all the gardeners are busy racing to get them in the ground.
Last fall, some of you may have scoured the seed catalogs for new tomato varieties and started your seeds indoors, but if you haven’t taken on indoor seed starting, don’t worry. As long as you get a healthy tomato start in the ground by March 15, you could be tasting homegrown tomatoes straight off the vine in June.
The tomato madness that infects gardeners in March might intimidate some beginner gardeners enough to keep them from trying to grow their own, but don’t let that stop you. It is not difficult to grow exceptional tomatoes if you follow a few simple tips. The only unintended outcome from trying to grow tomatoes might be the start of a healthy competition with neighbors.
Feed the soil before you plant. Soil health is the most important aspect of a productive vegetable garden. Before planting tomatoes, amend the soil with a mushroom compost or mycorrhizal fertilizer. Most garden centers carry these. The mycorrhizal fungi assist with water and nutrient absorption by the plant and reduce plant stress. Studies have shown that they can also increase crop yields, giving you more harvestable fruit.
Choose the varieties wisely. Walking into a nursery in March and seeing all of the different tomato varieties can overwhelm even the most organized gardener. Amid all of the excitement of tomato planting season, the tendency is to buy too many tomato plants for a small backyard. Most backyard gardens will only have room for 2 or 3 plants, and if you don’t edit wisely, you may find yourself up to your ears in tomatoes in June.
This is not always a bad thing, mind you. You can use an overabundance of tomatoes by canning salsas and other sauces. Eating a fresh tomato sauce in the middle of winter is a sensation that can transport you back to summertime.
When shopping, I recommend choosing varieties that have proven to be successful in our climate. Some varieties love long warm seasons, but here in Central Texas where our temps turn hot very quickly, certain tomatoes are better suited for these conditions.
The local nurseries and garden centers do a good job of procuring those varieties, as opposed to a big box store that might not curate their selection as well.
There is a lot of debate over heirloom varieties versus hybrids, and although heirloom plants have many important benefits like retaining historical qualities of plants, if your top reason for growing tomatoes is taste, you will find that both heirloom and hybrids can compete in this category.
The other important thing to consider is whether the plant is determinate or indeterminate. A determinate plant will only grow to a certain size and set flowers and fruit at one time. Many heat-resistant varieties are determinate and can produce fruit before the hot, hot days of summer.
An indeterminate plant is a vining type that can grow to more than 12 feet tall if left untrained. These varieties will continue to grow and set fruits that require a longer time to mature. All tomatoes will stop producing flowers once the daytime temperatures reach above 90 degrees and nighttime temperatures reach above 75 degrees.
Below are some recommendations for our region:
Sun gold (indeterminate): A cherry tomato with exceptional taste. Everyone I know plants one of these and loves them. Kids will eat them like candy. And, like all cherry types, they will still produce fruit even after temperatures get too hot for other tomatoes.
Cherokee purple (indeterminate): Famous for its rich flavor and texture. My favorite heirloom variety.
Yellow Brandywine (indeterminate): Another heirloom variety that does well here, and much better than the red Brandywine variety. Longer to mature than other varieties, it produces a bountiful crop of huge, orange-colored fruit.
Black krim (indeterminate): A sweeter tomato with deep red/brown skin color.
Celebrity (determinate): One of the most popular hybrids that is an early producer.
Juliet (indeterminate): A heavy producer of smaller, round red fruit.
Cherry bomb (indeterminate): Blight-resistant and high yields with a classic cherry tomato taste.
New girl (indeterminate): More disease resistant than early girl.
Know how to plant tomatoes properly.
Tomatoes will not set fruit unless they receive at least eight hours of sun.
One way to make sure the area receives full sun and is not in the shade of the house or trees is to take a photo of the area every two hours throughout a day. Remember to take into account that the path of the sun is higher in the summer than in the winter.
Tomatoes must be put in the garden as transplants — young seedlings that have been started from seed in a greenhouse.
Tomatoes, especially indeterminate types, need a lot of space in the garden. Plant your transplants at least 4 feet apart.
Dig a deep hole into the amended soil and set the plant in deep enough to bury the bottom one-third of the plant. This will encourage strong roots.
Water well and fertilize monthly with a seaweed emulsion, compost tea or worm castings.
Tomatoes must be protected when temperatures fall below 50 degrees, so keep an eye on the weather, and cover your tomatoes with a cloche or row cover if we get a cold spell before our frost-free date of mid-March.
Once the soil temperatures warm up a bit, add mulch around the plants to help the soil retain moisture.
These large plants will need support once they reach 2 feet tall. There are many ingenious ways to trellis indeterminate plants and my favorite method is to weave the plants between garden twine and metal T-bar stakes placed in between each plant.
Some folks create a system of overhead twine for the plants to cling on to. You also can fashion a cage out of flexible concrete reinforcement wire to set around the plant.
The round tomato cages that you see everywhere rarely hold up to the weight of the plants and are not recommended for indeterminate varieties.
Whether you grow your tomatoes or find them at a local farmers market, the best tomato recipes are simple and fresh— letting the tomato be the star of the dish.
Insalata Caprese, which pays homage to the Italian flag with its tricolored ingredients, is the island of Capri’s namesake dish. The tomatoes must be ripe yet firm, and the cheese should be buffalo milk mozzarella. Basil is typically grown alongside tomatoes, so this recipe should be kept on hand all summer for a hyper-local, no-cook dish that lets the tomatoes shine.
Perfect Caprese Salad
Fresh tomatoes (any slicing variety but they must be ripe yet firm)
Mozzarella di bufala
Extra-virgin olive oil
Flake sea salt
Slice tomatoes into 1/2-inch rounds, perpendicular to the stem. Slice mozzarella into 1/2-inch rounds.
Layer alternating slices of tomato and mozzarella across the plate until you run out. Sprinkle hand-torn basil on top. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of flake sea salt and cracked pepper.
Liz Cardinal is the founder of Austin Edible Gardens, austinediblegardens.com.