Tomatoes are America’s favorite garden vegetable. Yes, they are technically a fruit, but eaten as a vegetable. I’ve never put them in a fruit salad.
Tomatoes are definitely the “King of the Gardens” here at Sunshine Care, A Community of Assisted Living Homes in Poway, CA. Of the 20,000 lbs of fresh organic produce that we harvest annually, 8,000 lbs will be that of tomatoes. Whether it be cherry, roma, heirloom or just big fat tasty red tomatoes, our menus are often blessed with these fresh tasty treats from May through December or until we experience our first frost. The rest of the year, marinara and tomato/basil soup are enjoyed by all.
There is no crop that we grow that is more dynamic in production than tomatoes for the spring and summer months. Over the course of a year, we will plant around 55O tomato plants in our five organic gardens. Half of which will go in the ground no later than February 15th, after no fears of frost. They will start to produce in late May with a heavy harvest in June and July. Plant for plant, the fruit quality and quantity is unsurpassed than any other time of the year.
The other half of the tomatoes will be planted in April, May and June. This ensures fresh tomatoes from August to the end of the year. Quality production is difficult for the tomatoes planted in May and early June. These tomatoes are subject to abuse due to the very hot weather we experience here in the Inland Southern California area. The plants tend to grow too fast and set fruit higher up the vine. When temperatures get to be above 85 degrees F, flowers don’t set well and drop off. Temperatures above 95 degrees F can burn the fruit. With less fruit/plant setting, the first fruit tend to be huge. This is not really a bad thing, but leads to possible cracking of the fruit, even varieties that are touted as crack resistant.
If you are fortunate to live on the coast, this is rarely a problem.
It is not uncommon in July, August and September, to have stretches of high temperatures in the upper 90s ansd low 100s. Our low temperatures at that time will be around 65 degrees F. This can result in a temperature swing of 35 degrees F in a 24 hour period. It is my personal opinion that this is the main reason for cracking of tomatoes in our area. Cracking of tomatoes can also occur with overwatering and fertilizing to heavy. When it is hot, the fruit will hunker down by developing a thicker skin in self defense of the hot weather. We look at our wilting plants and then over water and/or fertilize way to much and the fruit will crack. Limp plants in the late afternoon should not alarm you, they will normally perk up in the morning. Gradual increases in the watering regime is the way to go.
This year, 2016, we experienced the hottest July since 1880 and August was no picnic either. Regardless, we curbed our incidence of cracked tomatoes significantly by employing the following techniques.
- When the high temperatures start to get to the mid 80s, we cover our rows of tomatoes with 50% black shade cloth to cool things down.
- At this time, we gradually set our irrigation timers to irrigate slightly more on a consistent basis and avoid overwatering.
- In our May and early June plantings, we switch to “Roma type” tomatoes.
Roma tomatoes are the ultimate American paste tomato that are also consumed fresh. The popular varieties used today are hybrids with their roots from the “Roma” open pollinated variety. In the 1950s, hybridization of tomato varieties became popular and in the case of the Roma types, varieties were bred for their plum shape, disease resistance, determinant plant habit, high sugars and resistance to cracking. They are known as plums, paste, canning, romas and square-rounds.
As a commercial grower of tomatoes in Mexico for 20 years, fresh market Romas were part of our arsenal for export to the U.S., especially in our very hot locations on the Baja Peninsula. As you drive up Highway 99 in California in the summer, you can’t escape the gondola filled semi-trucks hauling cannery tomatoes to the processing plants. These are grown in the Central Valley where it is blistering hot.
You now see Roma tomatoes in all the grocery stores and they are generally large and with no cracks.
Fresh market Roma tomatoes should not be confused from the famous San Marzano open pollinated heirloom variety. These are the classic canning variety, revered by top chefs, Italian cooks and food aficionados as the gold standard for taste. They are grown in the rich volcanic soil with a high water table, in an ideal Mediterranean climate, at the base of Mt Vesuvius in the Sarnese Nocerino area of Italy. They are still grown as they have been since the 17th century. The fruit are also crack resistant, grown on indeterminant plants with bright red, oblong and cylindrical fruit up to 5” in length. There are now “Super San Marzano” hybrid varieties with great disease resistance available.
We have had great success with the “Mariana” roma hybrid tomato. It is resistant to nematodes, a big concern in our gardens, as well as verticillium, fusarium races 1 and 2 and Alternaria. The fruit are an extra large roma-type which keep exceptionally well. The blocky 4-6 oz fruits are very uniform in shape with deep red, smooth unblemished skin. The variety offers excellent firmness with thick walls and a rich red internal color. The plants are determinant in habit and only grow to about 36-48” in height with excellent vigor and heavy fruit sets. The flavor is excellent, making it a great choice for canning, sauces and juice. It is also very tasty in salsas, salads, pizzas and other fresh recipes.
This variety is much larger than what we used to export to the U.S. from Mexico, in my days as a commercial grower. Wish it had been around then!
Seed is available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Jung Seed Company, where they can be purchased on-line.
So if cracked tomatoes are a problem in your garden in the heat of summer, or you just want a bunch of firm tomatoes that keep exceptionally well over a long period of time- try growing Roma-type tomatoes
I highly recommend Mariana. You will not be disappointed-I promise!