SXSW Tomatoes Part 2

How to Grow Tomatoes in Central Texas Part 2
By Colleen Dieter

It’s SXSW, and it’s tomato planting time! Friday night, after a fun day of planting ‘Celebrity’ tomatoes (the best variety for Austin) I will go down to Auditorium Shores to see some of my favorite ‘celebrities’- Flaming Lips! I’ve seen them a bunch of times and I am looking forward to hearing some new stuff from them. It’s a free show within sight of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s statue.

Now that I have my tomatoes in the ground and growing happily, here are a few things I will look out for.

You’re gonna need to get some cages, big stakes or other supports for your tomato plants. Tomatoes are kind of like big viney bushy things. If you don’t support them they will lay on the ground and take up your whole garden.

Tomatoes will need some protection from birds. I have found beautiful red fruit on my tomato vines with indents of bird footprints and large chunks gorged out of them. You can cover ripening tomatoes with small paper bags- if the birds can’t see them, they can’t eat them. Try hanging shiny things in your garden like foil pans, whirlygigs and CDs to scare the birds away. (Remember when AOL used to send CDs in the mail? They were prefect for scaring birds. Remember when you used to have CDs? Remember when you used to get mail? Weird.)

There is also a theory that the birds eat the tomatoes because they are thirsty and just want to drink the juice inside the fruit. I have had success adding birdbaths to the garden. Giving them an easy drink of water kept them from eating my tomatoes. Adding chile pequins to the perimeter of your garden will give them a little alternative food too.

Make sure you water your plants evenly, especially when they start to make fruit. This means you are watering them on a regular schedule with the same amount of water. Uneven watering will result in blossom-end rot and cracking.

If you get flowers on your plants but no fruit, it usually means that it is too hot outside for the plants to make fruit. The weather may not be on your side, or you need to plant earlier next year. There are also heat-tolerant varieties like ‘Superfantastic’ and ‘Heat Wave’ that you should try.

Once every month, scratch a handful or two of dry fertilizer into the soil around the plants. Also, foliar feeding with fish emulsion (I like Ladybug Brand John’s Recipe) is great for tomatoes.

Watch out for the dreaded tomato hornworm. These ugly beasts are hard to see because they are the same color as the tomato plants. They will strip the leaves off of the plants, leaving just blank stems. Companion planting experts say planting borage near your tomatoes will deter hornworms. Pick them off and smash them when you see them.

Join us on March 30 from 10 AM – Noon for a free basic organic vegetable gardening class at Sunfield Community Garden, 1328 Sunbright Boulevard, Buda TX 78610

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Tomatoes Got Me Warmed up for SXSW

It may seem early, but March and through the first half of April is the time to plant tomato seedlings in Austin. A garden-fresh tomato warmed by the sun is a gardener’s best prize. Try them out this year and don’t hesitate to try some unusual varieties.

Speaking of unusual varieties, this year I went to the Sunshine Community Garden Plant Sale (it’s always the first Saturday in March, check it out next year), and snapped this pic of the huge crowd in the huge tent full of rare, heirloom and hard to find tomato seedlings. While in line to get into the tent, some folks behind me were talking about how crazy the crowd was and I told them “this is just practice for SXSW”.

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I always associate tomato planting with seeing new acts at SXSW, and usually while I am planting I am listening to new (to me) artists and getting psyched to see them live. More on tomato planting music at the end of my blog.

Tomatoes require a little extra care, and can be challenging to grow in Central Texas. Tomato plants need full sun to get an abundant harvest. Because of our short growing season, you will need to buy tomato starts at the garden center or local plant sale. Look for dark green, short, stocky plants that have flat (not curled) leaves. Next year you can think about starting seeds indoors in December/January.

Just like most plants, tomato seedlings require some bed preparation. Make sure your garden soil is loose and mix in about three inches of compost. I also add a handful of cottonseed meal to each planting hole. Tomatoes should be planted deep in the soil, especially if they are lanky plants. Don’t hesitate to bury the stem, since these remarkable plants can grow roots out of their stems, and more roots means more drought and heat tolerance. Water the plants right after you plant them.

Be sure to put 2-4 inches of mulch around the plants. This will keep the soil moist and cool to nurture your little plants. Plus, mulch will save you time and money when the dry season hits by conserving water.

The best tomato planting music this season is the recent Foxygen record, with that song “Shuggie” leading the pack. I am sure Foxygen will encourage my tomato seedlings to thrive, because tomatoes love funky backbeats and vintage psych grooves. Plus, tomatoes especially like it when you sing along at the top of your lungs, and those Foxygen songs are easy to sing along with. If Mick Jagger and David Bowie had that modern family they daydreamed about between takes of  “Dancin’ in the Streets” and snorts of cocaine, their sons would be the members of Foxygen. I’ll be in the crowd at Hotel San Jose on Saturday afternoon to shout my “Thank You’s” to them for helping my tomatoes.

Check in next week for part 2 of our tomato growing tips to learn about tomato troubleshooting and tomato harvesting!