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Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
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Friday, July 16, 2010

Farewell, Tomato - the Tomato Report

Farewell, Tomato -the Tomato Report, was written by Annie in Austin for her Transplantable Rose Blog

My tomato report can't be as scientific as the yearly evaluations by MSS at Zanthan Gardens... she records facts and can give you quantitative data. I forget to write things down, collect impressions rather than data and make comedy & music videos for YouTube rather than face the realities of gardening here.

Philo & I have planted tomatoes each spring we've been in Austin (that's 5 tries at the other Austin house and 6 attempts at this one) and the entire harvest for those 11 late springs/early summers wouldn't add up to one good year in our old garden in the Western Burbs of Chicago.

There are supposedly two tomato seasons here - spring and fall - two really short seasons fitted around the midsummer heat that halts pollination. Squirrels and stinkbugs are a pain, the area we have for planting isn't large and constantly shifting shade with tree roots in clay soil isn't what tomatoes want. But we must have tomatoes!

An old adage says "Eat Dessert First" - so before the lists of varieties and laughable numbers please watch the music video -it's just over one minute and I hope it makes you smile!

A few years ago Philo made a wooden framework that could be dismantled and stored. It was short enough for me to reach over without a ladder and when the plants are in place the whole thing covers an area about 6-ft by 8 1/2ft, a size that can be draped with a bird net. Every year we add organic matter- this spring some of it came from my lasagna/sheet compost experiment and some came in bags from the Natural Gardener. Before setting up the framework Philo borrowed the Mantis tiller belonging to the Divas of the Dirt to till it all in. Then we set up the frame and buried a soaker hose around it.

The ground was cooler than usual this spring and so was the air. We bought tomato plants in early March, repotted them into slightly larger containers, took the plants outside any day when the temps were above 60°F and brought them into the garage every night. With frost warnings issued through the third week of March, we delayed planting until March 28th... then kept covers ready for near-frost nights. We kept the peppers in transitional pots, bringing them in and out, finally planting them on May 6th.


We bought some tomato varieties that we'd grown before
Solar Fire (2 plants) we were quite pleased with it in 2008 but we couldn't find it 2009.
Early Girl usually dependable, producing tomatoes even in that horrible heat & drought of 2009
Juliet We've grown this grape tomato 6 or 7 times - the taste is not spectacular but it has a long season and it's a nice bite
Celebrity usually dependable, but didn't do well in 2009
Black Krim in 2008 we had a few delicious tomatoes from one plant and wanted more. But in 2009 one plant was hit by hail and the other faded fast.

We tried some new ones
Sun Gold a very small cherry type with good press from Austin gardenbloggers
Paul Robeson not only a highly praised black tomato but one named after a singer!
Green Zebra highly recommended by many people and it looks cool
JD's Special Texas another black-type, also recommended

We had one very large container at the back of the garden for two plum types
San Marzano a famous tomato - last year it was lost to the hail storm of 2009
Roma - a plum tomato we'd grown in IL but not in TX

Most of the tomatoes came from the Natural Gardener but we also hit Shoal Creek Nursery, Countryside Nursery and the Zilker Park Garden Festival. We really wanted two varieties called 'Carmelo' and 'Costoluto Genovese', which had done well in 2009, but we couldn't find them in 2010.

The tomato plants were planted around the outside of the frame near the legs, so they could be tied as they grew. I also poked a couple of Tomatillo varieties, 'Demilpa' and 'Toma verde', into the hard-to-reach middle of the frame. One short side got a few pepper plants, including one hot 'Garden Salsa' and a couple of frying types.

A few weeks after the plants were in the ground we put more compost around them, covered the whole area with sheets of newspaper and covered the paper with Cotton Bur compost.

Every few weeks the plants were foliar-fed with Medina Hasta-grow and I put seaweed on them twice.

Everything was growing like gangbusters when the 'Green Zebra' sort of collapsed. A few weeks later the 'Paul Robeson' did the same thing, but more slowly, so that the tiny tomatoes that had already developed were even more pathetic. We keep trying heirlooms but in previous years other heirlooms - 'Arkansas Traveler', 'Persimmon' & 'Brandywine' - didn't do well either.

The first tomatoes of 2010 were the little 'Sun Golds' - tiny but tasty.

Some 'Early Girls' had set fruit as did the 'Solar Fire'.

'Juliet' sat there - no flowers- no developing fruit

'Celebrity' wasn't doing anything either but 'Black Krim' had a couple of tomatoes in progress.

The' JD Special' also had a couple of tomatoes looking as if they'd make it to maturity.

Small 'San Marzanos' & 'Romas' were forming, but the two plants were so entwined on their tomato cage that I wasn't sure which was which.

Toward the middle of May even though we had the bird net on, something (a bird? a squirrel? an unmentionable rodent?) got under and wiped out a precious 'Black Krim' and a couple of 'Solar Fires' that were low on the plants. Then stink bugs invaded.... not the large leaf-footed stink bugs of former years, but some smaller ones that came in clusters. I hunted and smooshed. Then the big leaf-footed type stinkbugs read the veggie news and returned for a share but it was harder for them to get through the birdnet. It was easier to see and squish the bugs as they flew onto the net at the front edge of the patch but the container with the plum tomatoes had no net and they were attacked by everything.

With birds and squirrels circling I grabbed tomatoes the second a pink blush appeared and let them finish inside in safety. Even with the A/C running our house stays about 78 degrees F - warm enough for them to ripen.
The 'Early Girl' and 'Solar Fire' made quite a few tomatoes by our reduced Austin standards and the 'Celebrity' woke up and made some, too.

We cherished each and every tomato as they gradually ripened inside.

When you have a short tomato season and a small patch there is no need to can, or freeze, or make sauce... there were only one or two ready per day.

In the lower left corner of that tray you'll see the only 'Black Krim' that we got to eat. In the upper two corners are the only JD's specials - others on the plant were destroyed by critters.

Yes, we purchased and grew three black tomato plants and had a grand total of three black tomatoes from them. Were they worth it? You betcha.

We took photos of the tomatoes at the solstice, then ate them while I wore the shirt. We baked bread for them.

We celebrated the larger of the 'JD's Specials' (it was the biggest tomato of the year, and one of the best tasting)

We toasted the JD with beer, garden garlic in olive oil, fresh mozzarella and more bread. (the Little Kings Ale is mine - Philo likes RealAle from Blanco),

In Illinois once the tomatoes came in we could keep picking until frost killed the plants, and even then might have plenty of green tomatoes to fry, but here, even with real rain supplemented by hand watering, once it got hot the plants stopped setting fruit and looked terrible. We still had a few good tomatoes and an excuse to keep baking.

But many of the newer tomatoes were smaller, were marred or didn't ripen evenly - since they were not proper slicers we could use them to cook and bake!

The ripening tray was replaced by the ripening plate as the numbers declined
The 'Solar Fire' kept making fruit but the stinkbugs ruined it
Finally we were down to one last full-sized tomato

We're still getting 'Sun Golds' and last weekend I tried to squeeze a few more tomatoes from the 'Celebrity' and 'Solar Fire' by cleaning up the vines, cutting them back, lightly feeding them and making sure they don't dry out. Even if we get no tomatoes for the next couple of months, there's a chance that one or two plants can survive until fall and pop out a few more tomatoes.
The peppers are still blossoming, and a few peppers are forming. Just a few will be enough for pepper and eggs on the weekend and if there are a few hot ones for salsa that will be great.

The tomatillos grew into enormous 7-ft plants that tried to smother the peppers and lifted the bird netting off the ground. They've flowered like mad but made not one tomatillo. I chopped the stalks back to 4-ft but otherwise am treating them kindly.

A few days ago I noticed a couple of unblemished tomatoes the size of walnuts and remembered reading that a Texas Gardener on one of the GardenWeb forums used organza Bridal Shower goodie bags from the dollar store to protect her fruit from stinkbugs.

Think it will work?

Farewell, Tomato -the Tomato Report, was written by Annie in Austin for her Transplantable Rose Blog


  1. Thanks for your informative and fun report!I love Black Krim and green zebra. I agree with you, even though my tomato yields are stupendously low the efforts are worth every delicious bite.

  2. My tomatoes didn't do as splendidly as I'd hoped. We got masses and masses of them while growing up in Lubbock, but, alas, not so many here. I'm trying again in the fall garden, and adding Roma tomatoes to my collection of Amish Paste, Cherry Romas and Mexico Midget tomatoes. So, we will see!

  3. I tried 1 Black Krim in 2009 and only got to eat 1 tomato, the squirrels got about 3 or 4 big ones. This year I am all about the green zebra! :)

  4. I laughed. I cried. I completely commiserated. You have pegged the frustration of growing tomatoes in Austin. i think you've documented it well, too. I don't think my records are any more quantitative. And you are so much more creative about pulling boring data and turning it into a compelling narrative--complete with song and photos.

    I'm glad that someone like you who has grown tomatoes successfully in other climates, someone who has something to compare it to, has explained so precisely the problems with Austin's summer. I've said many times that Austin has two short seasons interrupted by a hellish summer. I don't think I've ever gotten my point across as clearly as you do in this post.

  5. ooo! organza baggies for the tomatoes! that makes so much sense. In case you couldn't tell by the excitement over organza baggies, I'm currently fighting the stink bugs and leaf footed bugs too. the only reason I'm keeping half of the tomato plants in the ground is because I can't pull them up until the current tomatoes are all ripe. But I have been pulling off any new flower buds I see so it won't go about trying to produce any more.

  6. So much work and worry Annie. I think the bridal bags are definitely a nice touch to the garden. I hope your tomatoes appreciate the effort. Those tomato sandwiches look yummy. I thought your video was cute too.

  7. I love the way you have photographed each type. Great idea. Our tomatoes for the first time this year (some varieties) got blossom rot. But now the harvest is beginning big time. I usually broil a bunch and put them in zip-locks for freezer storage to add to sauces and stews in the winter. I have been really enjoying my BLTs as well! I have to come back and re-read this more carefully when I have time.

  8. Wow, what a report! I've found that if I manage to put my heirloom tomatoes in a spot they like, they'll thrive. If not, they languish and die. There is no in-between.
    You must try to roast tomatoes. I posted my recipe a few days ago. You'll enjoy the taste of tomatoes all year long.

  9. Yes, the video did make me smile! I had no idea how difficult it was/is to grow tomatoes in Austin. I'm spoiled here in the midwest!

  10. Oh Annie--your video made my day! Really enjoyed your tomato chronicles. Your great photos made me hungry, too.

  11. Loved the vidio, Annie. Can't believe how good a crop of tomatoes you have--a success in my book! I haven't met a tomato I couldn't kill!

  12. Hi Annie.

    What a great, informative post, and quite timely for me considering that I just ripped all of my tomato plants out...too many bugs sinking too many needles in!

    Your video was so apt! Also, I loved your previous "The Pond Song" video. Are you watching "The Choir" show on BBC America, I think you would really like it.

    Funny on the tomatillo front, mine have done the exact same thing...grown to biblical proportions, flowered like crazy...but,...but,...nothing! What is going on?

    The first creatures to find my, (at that point perfect cherry tomatoes), was the smart aleck mocking birds. I netted, then the stinkers moved in (among a myriad of other bugs) I subsequently put on an iced-turban and ripped the now yellowing plants up, I give up until next year!

    Still it was worth the work to get to see the horn-worms, what amazing creatures!

    I enjoyed reading about your tomato exploits...


  13. I've never seen a tomato dressed in lace--yours has to be the prettiest tomato patch I've ever seen:) Like Carol, I had no idea how difficult it was to raise tomatoes in Texas nor that it could actually get too hot for them. Your photos are making my mouth water for a fresh tomato--I'm still waiting for the first one here. The stinkbugs don't get to them, but I have my fingers crossed that the downpours of June don't cause the late blight we've had the past two years.

    Tomatoes and basil on bread--yummm!

  14. You have to have real talent and determination to grow tomatoes in Austin. So even if small by Illinois standards, by Austin standards, your harvest looks great! And I love the lacy cover idea. This is the second time I've heard about this technique this month. I gotta try it.

  15. That's a lot of tomatoes! It's my first year growing them, and I can say without a doubt that I have room for improvement on being a tomato gardener.

  16. Hi Nicole - this is one of those "process not product" things, I guess!

    Hello Younger Rachael -so you can relate! DH used to make enormous batches of salsa for parties in IL.

    One Black Krim is better than none, Tina Poe - your stories about the Green Zebra make me jealous.

    Your posts made me want to talk about the Austin Tomato Experience, MSS at Zanthan Gardens - now your comment is making me feel I wrote it right. Thank you!

    Aren't the bags hilarious, Katina? But reusable & from the dollar store made it worth a try, especially when the weather is so different every year that all bets are off on what happens next!

    Thank you Lisa at Greenbow - they're a luxury rather than a crop, but there's some payoff!

    We used to freeze the extras in IL but no extras here, Tabor... but that also means no pressure to preserve them.

    What I'm reading online makes me wonder if we have Fusarium wilt in our soil, Weeping Sore - that Green Zebra & Paul Robeson didn't languish - looked good before rapidly wilting and collapsing. Think I'll try another heirloom in a container with potting soil & see what happens. Your roasted sauce looks delicious! Hope I someday have enough tomatoes to try it!

    That was my hope, Carol! Maybe the difficulty of growing tomatoes in Austin was supposed to be a secret? Uh, oh... hope this post doesn't get me in trouble!

    Glad the video made your day, Iris - that comment made mine!

    Guess it's all relative, Morning Glories in Round Rock - took so many plants to get one trayful!

    Those horrible stinkbugs! I use The Pinch,ESP, but don't have Rock Rose Jenny's hand-eye coordination .
    Thank you for watching the videos... and for liking them! We don't have cable - maybe the Choir will come to Netflix?
    Some sites suggest the tomatillos don't set in high temps. I've seen bloggers on both East & West Coasts brag of wondrous crops... but here where we NEED salsa verde we get nothing?!? I'm totally confused.

    Rose, it is so different here! And this year we warmed up so slowly that it was too close to the solstice by the time the plants got going, Hope your tomato dreams come true- tomato & basil forever!

    You seem to get wonderful crops, Renee of Renee's Roots - your posts do encourage us to keep trying ;-'

    It seems that the tomato gardener in Austin needs a lot of stuff to succeed, doesn't it Meredith? Not just compost & water, but with such thin, rocky soil you need raised beds and purchased soil, row cover, bird netting, and shade cloth! And luck... wish that to you!

    Thanks for the comments!


  17. Drooling over your 'Black Krim' and 'JD' since my BK's are nowhere near ready to eat yet... and also keeping my fingers crossed that your organza bag does the trick! :)

    ps. My word verification for this comment is: peecans
    How appropriate! How are those coming along this year?

  18. Hi Blackswamp Kim - hope the BK's get up to speed and if the organza bag works please let us know.
    We found a few smallish black tomatoes at a Farmers Market over the weekend...don't know the variety but worth the price!

    Pecans...well. The only time we got edible pecans was in 2007 and I fought the squirrels for every one. My neighborhood has been very hot and dry for the last 10 days and the trees are responding by dropping undone nuts all over the yard. At least we get shade from them!


  19. LOL, I don't trust anything to do with weddings--HA! But seriously-May 28? You had tomatoes May 28?! I'm still waiting for mine to ripen, grrl!!! Love the song.

  20. I love this song! I'm going to be singing it all day (your version and Cole's). You are so creative. Plus, thanks for the super tomato info. I got fed up with them a few years ago but now I may just have to try again next year. Maybe you can write a spring pep rally song to encourage the tomatoes?!

  21. It's a good thing you and Philo like a challenge, Annie. You certainly fight long and hard for those precious tomatoes. I'm glad they're worth every bite. They sure do look delicious in each creative way you serve them, but especially in their unadorned, newly-picked beauty.
    Your songs always crack me up. Loved it!
    Savor those morsels!

  22. Aha, now I see what Sun Gold looks like. That's going on the list for next year.

    And I'm definitely going to try the organza bag trick for the stink bugs. Hand picking those detestable creatures is a pain.

    Last weekend I picked the first couple of cat-faced Black Krim just as they were turning pink, so haven't yet tried them. The next ones will be prettier IF the stink bugs haven't ruined them. Lost some to sunscald too, after the heat/drought took most of the foliage.

    Still...there's nothing like Homegrown Tomatoes.

    Cute video!

  23. I've had my best tomato year in ten, but we're now having the soaring temps which may mean adieu. I'm just grateful I got some because the Austinish weather we had for years stropped tomatoes in their tracks in May with no bloom set.

    I hope by cutting back you can get more tomato goodness my friend. I've had plenty now. ~~Dee


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