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“Maters” Matter

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It’s been months since you could go out to the garden, grab a tomato, and slice it for your favorite sandwich. “Maters” are the number one planted vegetable in home gardens. Starting with the first warmth in February, people flock to nurseries in search of tomato plants. Subsequent cold temperatures cause the plant to either stall out or die, creating another nursery visit. As with most summer vegetables, ground and night temperatures must be warming. Every area has an old gardener’s adage that is a loose but wise rule of thumb for planting time. In Sonora, the advised planting date is Mother’s Day.

Choices and terminology may be daunting as you make your tomato decisions. First, two different growth habits exist, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants reach a particular height and stop, causing a majority of the fruit to mature at one time—perfect for commercial growers and people who home can tomato sauce. Indeterminate plants continue growing and producing fruit all season long, usually needing strong cages for support.

“Heirloom” indicates a tomato variety that has existed for at least fifty years, old varieties that have not been cross-pollinated to eliminate or reduce diseases. Hybrid tomatoes are super-duper maters. The best traits are combined to improve yield, resist disease, and strengthen plants and roots. Capital letters behind their names designate resistance to diseases, V (verticillium wilt), F (fusarium wilt), and N (nematodes).

If you are interested in the top ten varieties of tomatoes, the list is elusive. All gardeners have differing opinions. Here is a conglomeration of many opinions, starting with the smallest fruit:

Sungolds  – indeterminate hybrid cherry tomato taking 60 days from transplant to first harvest. Sweetest orange little tomato is a must for garden snacking.

Juliet – 1999 All American Selections Winner. Hybrid, indeterminate plant with elongated cherry tomato-sized fruit. 60 days from transplant for first fruit.

Early Girls  – back bone of home gardens. Hybrid indeterminate that produces in 58 days from transplant, fruit is 8-oz red globe with stems to 6 feet long.

Big Boy  – indeterminate hybrid beefsteak tomato. Larger size (12-16 oz) takes longer to produce fruit, 75 days.

Big Beef  – 1994 All American Selections Winner. Beefsteak sized (10-12 oz) indeterminate hybrid. Slower producer due to size, 73 days.

Mortgage Lifter  – flavorful pink heirloom with a history. This 16-24 oz beefsteak saved farmers and small nurseries from debt during the Great Depression. 85 days to make those big maters.

Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, and Brandywine  – tasty indeterminate heirlooms with 16 oz fruit, producing in 69 to 80 days.

Amish Paste Tomato  – few seeds producing 8 oz red fruit in 85 days, indeterminate.

Try new varieties every year while also enjoying an original favorite. Tomato plants build roots all along the stem underground (adventitious roots), making the plant stronger and sturdier, so plant them deep, clipping off leaves on lower stems. Any plant that produces fruit or flowers needs to be fed regularly for energy. Be a part of growing the number one vegetable garden plant; plant a mater.

Julie Silva is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.

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