July 2nd, 2010
Tomato Review 2010 Spring

tomato Red Zebra
Tomato ‘Red Zebra’. Maybe

Selecting a Site

All through last summer I watched the sunlight and shadows in my yard and concluded that the consistently sunniest spot was alongside the driveway. Ever since my neighbor’s installed a privacy fence, I’ve been removing the invasive nandina. Now I was more determined than ever to turn this spot into our new tomato bed. This would be the fifth spot I’ve tried.

Zanthan Gardens tomato vines
2009-11-22. I spy a good spot for the tomatoes.

Starting from Seed

My favorite store for unusual tomatoes, Gardens, closed this year so I decided (at the last minute) to start tomatoes from seed. I received my order on February 25th. When I worked in an office with good lighting and warm rooms, I had great luck growing tomatoes from seed. I used to put my seed tray on top of my computer monitor and they’d pop up in days with that bottom heat. However, my house is cold and dark in the winter and my computer doesn’t have one of those old-fashioned monitors. The sad ending to this story is not a single seed came up.

Tomato Season

I went to the Sunshine Coop sale on March 6th and got six starts. This might seem early but in 2009, I already had all my tomatoes planted by this date.

Zanthan Gardens tomato vines
2010-03-11. The tomatoes are planted.

As always, I’m running behind and I have not gotten the tomato bed built before I have to get the tomatoes in the ground. In Austin, we have a very short window of opportunity. Plant too early and face a late freeze. Plant too late and face early high temperatures which prevent the tomatoes from setting fruit. Because I live downtown which is usually a few degrees warmer than the suburbs and because this spot is protected from north winds and gets full summer sun, I plant early.

When I planted the tomatoes on March 11th, the daytime high was 74° and the nighttime low 45° (a bit chilly for tomatoes). The first 90° day was April 23rd (compared with April 9th in 2009).

We picked our first tomato, a small “Jaune Flamme” on May 17th. It wasn’t entirely ripe but we were leaving for a week out of town and we couldn’t resist. From May 25th to June 30th, we picked tomatoes almost every day. Now in July, there are a couple of tomatoes still ripening. The tomatoes are still flowering but the nights are too hot for them to set fruit. The 2010 tomato season was almost 2 weeks longer than in 2009. We still haven’t had any triple digit highs. In 2009, by July 2nd Austin had had twelve triple digit days…what we average for an entire summer. (This week temperatures have dropped and we’ve had four straight days of rain. Maybe they’ll start setting again.)

Soil Preparation

I dig down about a foot and still pull out another bag full of nandina and snailseed vine roots. I dig in about a foot of Natural Gardener Hill Country garden soil as well as the three inches of leaf mold that has rotted down in this spot for the last 20 years. The soil is pretty nice black clay. When I get down below a foot, the clay is still damp from our generously rainy winter and a little cold.

I plant all the tomatoes in the warm amended soil. I put dolomite lime (magnesium and calcium) in each hole and plant them with a water bottle just as I did last year. I believe that the steady moisture reduces problems with blossom end rot. I put toilet paper roll collars around the stems to foil the cutworms.

Zanthan Gardens tomato vines
2010-03-11. I hill the dirt up but can’t build a raised bed until the peas come out.

At this point I don’t mulch. I use the water bottles to get water directly to the roots. I never spray the plants or the dirt around them. For now, the dirt is acting like a 4 inch layer of mulch. And because it’s dark, it’s soaking up the sunlight and quite warm.

However, I can’t build the raised beds for the tomatoes because I planted the English peas along the chain link fence and they are at the height of their production. It will be another month, April 3rd, before the raised bed is installed and two more weeks, April 18th, before the netting is put up to keep out the squirrels. The tomato fortress successfully foiled the squirrels right up until the last week of harvest. Then they managed to shake tomatoes loose and roll them towards the netting and eat them. Overall we lost only half a dozen tomatoes to the squirrels. Last year we lost more than half of the total tomatoes.

Zanthan Gardens tomato vines
2010-05-13. All the tomatoes are flowering and setting fruit.

The weekend before we leave town for a week, Austin gets a good soaking rain. Afterwards, I mulch the tomato bed with several inches of composted pine needles from this year’s Christmas tree mulch.


Early in the season, I found four tomato hornworms and picked them off by hand. They did only slight damage. When temperatures climbed into the 90s, I noticed more stink bugs. I’d pick them off every morning. They were more of a problem in the last couple of weeks of June. Our biggest pest, the squirrels, managed to broach our defenses but we lost only four tomatoes to them. We already have plans to refit the tomato fortress and make it even more secure next year.


This year only a couple of tomatoes developed blossom end rot. I attribute it to uneven watering; they didn’t get any water the week we out of town and then we came back, it poured. Only one tomato cat-faced. One variety, (red Zebra?) consistently split.

Tomato Varieties

Zanthan Gardens tomato vines
From left to right: Faribo Goldheart, Arkansas Traveler, Jaune Flamme.

All six plants were grown in the same conditions. They were grown in the same soil, received the same amount of sunlight, were watered and fertilized the same. This year we had two winners and two losers. ‘Jaune Flamme’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler’ produced well and consistently. ‘Red Zebra’ produced moderately well but every tomato was cracked. ‘Faribo Goldhart’ produced only four tomatoes and only one of them was edible.

Jaune Flamme

We loved ‘Jaune Flamme’ so much last year that I bought two plants this year. They got off to a quick start and were the first to produce fruit. The tomatoes average about 2 ounces–larger than a cherry tomato but not a full-sized tomato. They are tangy and juicy. When fully ripe, the interior is a blush rose. The vines reached the top of the tomato fortress (which is 8 feet tall).

Arkansas Traveler

I bought one ‘Arkansas Traveler’ but it had two plants growing in the pot. They’re said to love the heat and the plants didn’t seem to get going until it warmed up a bit. At one point they were half the size of the ‘Jaune Flamme’ vines. However, once they started growing, they set nice trusses of red, blemish-free fruit. They averaged four or five ounces each. Even when fully ripe, ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a somewhat pinkish, rather than bright red. They were firm and meaty. They weren’t flashy but they were dependable.

tomato Arkansas Traveler
‘Arkansas Traveler’ set fruit well.

Red Zebra?

I bought ‘Azoychka’ but as soon as the fruits of this tomato starting turning color, it was evident that it wasn’t the yellow Russian tomato I’d enjoyed last year. It looked like it was going to be ‘Green Zebra’. Then the green turned to red. They skin was glossy and on the vine they looked gorgeous. But when I picked them, they were all cracked. And in some cases ants would get in the cracks. I learned to pick them a little green and slice off the tops. The bottom two-thirds of the tomato was fine. But I don’t think I will grow them again.

The ‘Red Zebra’ tomatoes were slightly smaller than the ‘Arkansas Traveler’. The taste was a bit more tangy.

tomato Red Zebra
Red Zebra? Beautiful on the blossom side but not on the stem side.

Faribo Goldheart

‘Faribo Goldheart’ was the biggest disappointment of the bunch. First of all, it set only 5 fruit. The first one was cat-faced. The next one was perfect. The next one ripened on one side but was shrunken on the other. The last two rotted on one side–like blossom end rot but on not on the end. (I have a photo but it was taken in very poor light so you’re spared the horror.)

by M Sinclair Stevens

14 Responses to post “Tomato Review 2010 Spring”

  1. From Tina Poe:

    Love your fortress, is there a door on the side to get in?

    I wish it were that fancy. Dreams for next year. No, the netting along the front is tied to the frame. I have to untie it and retie it whenever I go in and out. — mss

  2. From Katina Austin:

    I almost bought a juane flamme this year based on how much you like it. I ended up getting the purple cherokee and black krim instead…but I think the black krim may not be a black krim because I don’t remember the tomatoes turning orange at any stage last year. Shoulda got the juane flamme instead…

  3. From Carol:

    Very impressive. When are you writing that book about gardening in Austin? I love the orderliness of the tomato cage. In my zone 5 garden, I hope to pick a tomato by mid-July.

  4. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    This is fabulous information! And such beautiful tomatoes, too.

  5. From austin78753:

    Thanks for the detailed report.

    I sort of messed up this year by saving seed from last year’s crop. By carefully selecting the best producers, I think what I actually did was over-emphasized individuals that do well in heat. So that really didn’t work out well in this cool year. The good news is that they are all still setting fruit.

    Did you select the plants you were going to save seed from before or after you decided they were good producers? Did you grow more than one variety? If you didn’t isolate the flowers before they set fruit then you have created your own hybrids–which is cool. Over time they will be a strain adapted especially to your garden even though they will no longer be the variety you started with. — mss

  6. From bob pool:

    That Red Zebra is, I think, the prettiest tomato I’ve ever seen. Too bad it isn’t split proof.

    Your big cage looks great. You could make little hooks out of paper clips and use small rubber bands on them to make stretch ties. That would make it a little easier and faster to get in and out.

  7. From Jim in West Lake Hills:

    Great report. Thanks so much. Tomatoes in Austin are hard enough and some useful information is so much appreciated. Over the years, I have always had serious difficulty growing heirloom tomatoes.

    I tried something very different last year. I have a couple of large fish ponds (koi) and I saw a KLRU show about sustainable aquaculture using water pumped from the bottom of the pond (with fish waste) to fertilize crops. The water is pumped up to a bed of gravel (built from landscape timbers and rubber pond liner), flows thru and back to the pond by gravity. Last year I planted several heirloom tomatoes that were great. Last year’s best were black from tula and lemon boy (not heirloom but excellent). The big test was whether it would work the second year.

    I was not disappointed. This year I planted Brandywine red, cherokee purple, black from tula, and black krim, plus some sweet 100s. All of these were successful. The blacks were late getting started and are just ripening. Not large crops but great tomatoes. I went to war with the squirrels and my resulting fortress is not nearly as pretty as yours but it has worked. The heirloom crop is coming to an end with the heat but they have been so good! I have thoughts of expansion. The system works for beans and other stuff but that is for after tomato season.

    I sometimes use pond water to water my potted plants but I don’t have a systematic approach to using it. Yours sounds really cool. Wish you had a blog so that we could all see photos. — mss

  8. From renee (renee's roots):

    Mss, I agree with Bob. Those Red Zebras are amazing. Maybe worth growing one just to look at and photograph. If you save seed, I’d love to give a try. Your tomato cage looks good. I keep meaning to build something similar for my tomatoes but keep rigging up makeshift protection w/netting instead. You’ve inspired me to move “build a better tomato cage” higher on my list.

  9. From Cheryl in Austin:

    My green stripe had the same seam-splits as yours do…I wonder if it’s some kind of weakness in the tissue between the stripes?

  10. From Annie in Austin:

    Great post! I want to make a tomato post, too, but it won’t have the detail and exact recording found at Zanthan Gardens. It’s pitiful to see how hard we must work for what wouldn’t be much of a crop in the Midwest.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  11. From Dorothy @ Gardening with Nature:

    I grew a couple of ‘Arkansas Travelers’ this spring, too. They produced some nice fruits. Unfortunately, the leaf-footed stink bugs are a plague on my veggie garden and they hit early. That was pretty much the end of my tomatoes.

  12. From Ryan in Georgetown, Tx:

    Interesting. How tall is that frame and did the plants reach the top? Is the only method of support stringing them up over the center bar? It has been a mysteriously good year for tomatoes in my garden. I grew Red Grape, Red Cherry, 4th of July, Cherokee Purple, and Celebrity. Oddly enough, the normally prolific Celebrity was the one plant that did not do well this year.

    The frame is eight feet tall. With all the rain this year the plants are now growing through the net and above it. Some are still flowering but the flowers are not setting fruit. Yes, the plants are entirely supported by stringing them up (I use heavy duty jute…nothing too sharp that might cut into the stems). The nice thing about this method, in addition to being very cheap, is that you can add more strings as the plants grow. Here’s the about Stringing Up Tomatoes where I first heard about this method. I would advise using a pole (which we did last year) rather than a strip of wood. The pole can bear more weight. The strip of wood began sagging. It didn’t break but we worried it might. –mss

  13. From heidi Rural valley pa.:

    I got a Heirloom tomato called “Mr. Stripey” from a friend who has a greenhouse. It looks like the one your think may be Red Zebra.

  14. From Jeff - Fort Worth, TX:

    That water bottle idea for watering down to the root is brilliant! I’m for sure going to try that out. That’s a great idea, especially for gardening in Texas where it gets so dry. Awesome idea…and good for recycling. Great blog. Thanks for sharing.

    The Garden Cloche | Protect Your Plants