June 21st, 2009
Tomato Review 2009 Spring

tomato harvest
2009-06-04. Today is the only day that we harvest something from each plant. Clockwise from the large orange one on the top right: Persimmon, Cherokee Purple, Jeune Flamme, a bunch of Black Cherry, a yellow Azoychka, and two bright red Carmello.

This year there’s a lot of interest in growing your own food to save money. That may be feasible in some climates or even for some gardeners in my climate but it’s not what motivates me. I grow tomatoes because I like to experiment with varieties that I can’t buy and because I like to try new things.

However, because people are interested in growing veggies to save money, I decided this year to keep notes on what I spent and what I harvested to see how I managed strictly on the economic aspect of veggie gardening. My friend, Angelina who gardens in Oregon, estimates that she gets 12 pounds of roma tomatoes per plant.

That seems incredible to me. I had 7 plants and my TOTAL harvest was 12 pounds 12.5 ounces. (That’s just what we harvested. Twice as much fruit set as we harvested. The squirrels made off with the other half. So, potentially the plants might have produced 25 pounds total–still far short of Angelina’s yields.) Still, with organic heirloom tomatoes going for $5.99 a pound (Whole Foods Market), I definitely got more out of my tomato patch than I put in, even when you add up the cost of plants, organic soil amendments, and water.

Note 1: My tomato patch did not replace any lawn so it was not a trade-off on water…it was additional water.

Note 2: If you buy cheaper supermarket chainstore tomatoes, then your savings might be less. My comparison is based on what it would cost me to buy tomatoes of equivalent type and quality.

Tomato Season

I planted tomatoes from February 26th to March 5th. I bought 4-inch potted starts from Gardens, except for ‘Cherokee Purple’ which I bought at The Natural Gardener. The latter had signs warning that it was too early to plant and not to put tomatoes in until night temperatures didn’t drop out of the 40s. However, Austin had had several days of 80 degree heat the week before and last year I planted them too late and got nothing. So, I decided to gamble against the cold rather than the heat.

We did get a cold snap a few days after I planted them. The leaves developed little cold damage spots on them. ‘Carmello’ was the most sensitive to the cold. However, in the long run they all came back quickly and began flowering and setting fruit by mid-March.

Temperatures hit 90 degrees on April 9th. I was glad that I already had quite a few tomatoes on my plants by then. Although day time temperatures cooled off again, by the end of the month the night time low temperatures hit the 70s and no more tomatoes were setting fruit. By April 22, the tomatoes that had been in full sun were now being shaded until 10 in the morning by the pecan tree.

On May 6th we picked the first cherry tomatoes. In June we started really reaping our harvest. Last week we had a tomato based dinner four nights in a row. Although there are a couple of green tomatoes left, they are not worth the water to ripen them. So the first day of summer is the end of our spring tomato season.

Soil Preparation

All the tomatoes were grown in spots where I never have grown vegetables before. I was trying to find some sunlight so all the plants ended up in the front yard this year. They were in full sun until April when the pecan tree leafed out. Then they got about 6 hours of sun. To each hole I added sifted compost, eggshells, bone meal, and dolomite lime (calcium and magnesium).


This year I tried planting 1.5 liter plastic water bottles with 5 small holes punched with an ice pick at the bottom next to the tomato starts. Before planting I filled each hole with water and let it sink in. Then I planted the water bottle and the tomato together. I filled in the hole with compost. I filled the bottles once each morning, every day. My idea was to ensure that the amount of water was constant and that it was delivered to the roots.

drip system
2009-03-02. My cheap drips system made out of old plastic water bottles.

This worked really well. The leaves of the plants never got wet. I had no disease problems and no blossom end rot. I gave the plants the same amount of water every day which was delivered to the roots rather than having to soak down a foot. I think as it got very hot, I might have increased the water ration to twice a day. This might have kept the skins of the fruit from becoming so leathery. Other people say that too much water at this stage makes the fruit watery and the flavor less intense.

Stringing Up

My existing small tomato cages never worked well but I didn’t want to buy stakes or expensive larger cages. So I tried a technique I learned from Hanna @ This Garden is Illegal and strung up the tomatoes. I was afraid that the string wouldn’t hold the weight of the plant, especially with tomatoes on it or in a wind. However, it was really easy and there were no problems at all. This method worked really well for me and I’m going to do it again.
stringing up tomatoes
2009-05-06. I really liked stringing up tomatoes and it was a lot cheaper than buying cages for them.


I had no problems with insect pests. I found one tomato hornworm. Toward the end of the season, some of the ‘Carmello’ fruit had some stinkbugs which I picked off. The biggest pest was squirrels.

Tomato Varieties

I don’t have a chef’s palate. Although I can taste differences between the varieties, my opinion is that growing conditions had more effect on flavor than variety did. All the tomatoes tasted great in their own way when fully ripened on the vine; this was a feat not easily accomplished because of squirrels. At first we picked the tomatoes when they were starting to color and ripened them indoors. The flavor was unsatisfactory. Besides the squirrels began eating them when they were green. So we resorted to bird-netting. The squirrels still managed to get at some of the tomatoes but we finally managed to enjoy fully-ripened tomatoes. Next year we are building a fully-caged tomato bed.

The other thing that affected tomato taste was the heat. As temperatures climbed into the high 90s and the 100s (which isn’t supposed to happen in Austin until late July), the skins of the tomatoes got tougher and tougher.

My personal taste favors tangy, citrusy tomatoes. I love to make tomato salsa but we never had enough tomatoes. This is the first year I tried black tomatoes. When very ripe both black varieties were delicious but I still prefer yellow and orange tomatoes. We ate all our tomatoes fresh, with mozzarella, basil, and balsamic vinegar on the side.


Arkansas Traveller

Although 20 tomatoes set on ‘Arkansas Traveller’, we never tasted a single one thanks to squirrel predation. This is quite a popular tomato in Austin because it’s supposed to be able to deal with the heat.


‘Azoychka’ was the little tomato that could. It’s a Russian tomato and dealt with the cold very well. It was the first to set and it set more fruit over the season than any tomato. We picked the first few too early, when they were a bright lemon color and the flavor was still bland. When fully ripe, they actually deepen to an orange almost the same color as ‘Persimmon’. The fruit is tart and tangy. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that the sometimes had a white pulpy core.

We harvested 21 tomatoes averaging about 3.5 ounces each. The largest was 8.5 ounces. Total, 3lbs 13.5oz.

Black Cherry

‘Black Cherry’ had the deepest green leaves of all the tomatoes. They had a tendency to curl a bit and I don’t know if it meant there was something wrong, or it wanted more water, or what. The leaves didn’t yellow, so I didn’t worry about it. These cherry tomatoes are held loosely apart on long clusters. We liked the flavor well enough but really prefer the tang of a yellow cherry tomato like ‘Sungold’.

I didn’t think that ‘Black Cherry’ was very productive for a cherry tomato. We harvested 33 fruits for a total of 10.5 ounces of fruit.


I’ve probably grown ‘Carmello’ more than any tomato over the years. It has a nice zingy flavor that makes a wonderful salsa. ‘Carmello’ comes to a distinctive point on the end and I’ve never had any problem with it cat-facing or having blossom end rot. I’ve read that the skin is quite delicate and so it doesn’t ship well. Once temperatures got into the high 90s an 100s, even the skin on the ‘Carmello’ was tough.

‘Carmello’ was more sensitive to the cold weather than any of the other tomatoes. It is also did better in the hot weather, still putting out the occasional flower even in June.

The fruit is a little larger than ‘Jeune Flamme’ but a little smaller than ‘Azoychka’, typically about 2.25 ounces. The largest was 3.5 ounces. We harvested 18 fruit for a total of 3lb 2.75oz.

Cherokee Purple

‘Cherokee Purple’ was a very vigorous plant. It did not want to be trained to one stem at all. It wanted to send out shoots and flop all over the place. The advantage of the string method is I could just tie up any shoots it sent out. ‘Cherokee Purple’ had the worst problems with catfacing. I don’t object to eating ugly tomatoes, but when the flesh parts enough for bugs to get in, the tomato is worthless.

tomato catfacing
‘Cherokee Purple’ had the tendency to catface…the only one of all the varieties I planted that did.

‘Cherokee Purple’ was the last of the tomatoes to ripen. The flavor doesn’t take kindly to being picked early, either. When we did manage to pick some vine-ripened ones we were impressed with the full, deep tomato taste. I don’t think I will grow it again though because of the catfacing.

Although more than 20 fruit set, we managed to harvest only half of them: 3lbs 3.25oz. The largest tomato was 8.25 oz but most were about 5oz.

Jeune Flamme

I fell in love with ‘Jeune Flamme’ this year and will definitely be growing it again. It’s only about the size of a ping pong ball, maybe twice again the size of a cherry tomato. The little orange fruit had a wonderful silky/creamy texture (not too much jelly). Unfortunately, like ‘Arkansas Traveller’ it was outside the bird netting protection. Although we managed to harvest a dozen fruit in mid-May, once the squirrels found it we lost the remaining half of what had set. Total harvest: 11.25 oz.


I love the flavor and creamy texture of ‘Persimmon’ more than any other tomato I’ve ever tasted. However, ‘Persimmon’ is not very productive for me. This is the third year I’ve tried it and I’m lucky to get 2 or 3 fruit from a plant.

This year only 4 fruit set and we managed to harvest only 3 of them. They were the largest tomatoes we grew at 2.75oz, 7.25oz, and 9.25, a total of 1lb 3.25oz. Hmmm. In terms of weight, rather than number, that’s almost twice the tomatoes we got off of ‘Black Cherry’. Maybe ‘Persimmon’ is worth it’s keep. I will probably grow it again but I can’t recommend it to anyone who is short on space. Maybe it will do better in the fall tomato garden.

Note: There is another variety called ‘Russian Persimmon’ and they are not the same.

by M Sinclair Stevens

24 Responses to post “Tomato Review 2009 Spring”

  1. From cat - austin, texas:

    i really appreciate this post as tomatoes and i have a love/hate relationship and i’m determined to tip that to the love side. i always think i’m planting early enough and then it turns out i’m not. i’m going to actually plant some for the fall and see what happens. this year i got all of them in the ground by march, and some are producing but not very prolifically. i also left some volunteers in the garden and they are doing alright…but flower production isn’t what it should be, so i just gave them all a boost of “rocket fuel” from garden ville. all organic and i’m hoping this helps. i put mine under shade cloth this year and they seem to be doing fine as far as foliage goes. the ones in the front are growing slower.

    anyway, not to write a novel..my main intent is to thank you for your very detailed post..:)

    Thanks! This type of post takes me a long time to research and write but they’re why I started writing about the garden in the first place. I write what I’d like to read elsewhere–the kind of information I’m curious about. If I don’t keep track of the details for myself, then I feel my experience is wasted. I’m glad blogs give me the opportunity to share. — mss

  2. From Austin78753:

    Great report! We discovered soda bottles and string this year, too, both to good results. Thanks for your work keeping records and pulling the information together. I think it’s a really good point that if you’re gardening to save money, you need to look at yields here, not a hypothetical yield somewhere else. I’d be interested in any other data you have, comparing crops (eg tomatoes vs peppers), especially for our short prime growing seasons in the spring and fall. Thanks!

    I haven’t had any luck growing sweet peppers although I grow jalapeños every year. My yard is mostly shday, so I can only grow a few vegetables after the trees leaf out and tomatoes just win out for the few sunny spots I have. (I have more luck with my winter garden.) I am thinking of writing a post in terms of both caloric and economic yields per crop. For saving money, herbs are the big winner because fresh herbs are expensive in the stores. Herbs are more tolerant of our climate as long as you give them good drainage. So far snap beans have been the big loser because, like tomatoes, they have a short window when they set fruit, they take up a lot of space, and they are quite cheap to buy. — mss

  3. From Annie in Austin:

    I really enjoy seeing your reflections and examinations and measurements of tomatoes. We don’t grow them for economic reasons, but it looks as if many people do, making your records useful as well as interesting.

    Last year Early Girl did nothing in my garden – Solar Fire and an unnamed heirloom were the best, with a few wonderful Black Krims. This year we’ve had a steady supply of Early Girls and an occasional Carmello. A few Costoluto Genovese ripened this weekend with another 15-18 on the plant. Other varieties have no fruit, including Arkansas Traveler, San Marzano and Persimmon. As always there are many handfuls of Juliets, which you don’t like, but I do.

    Our wooden frame draped with bird netting has been pretty good. Do big birds land on the cross strings supporting your tomatoes? I just wondered if they can hold up under the weight of Grackles, Jays and White-winged Doves.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Interesting that you didn’t have as much success with ‘Carmello’. Of course you got hit by that late freeze harder than I did downtown and you had the horrible hailstorm in late March. I might try ‘Juliet’ again since it is generally well-liked in Austin. I probably didn’t water it consistently enough last year (when we had all those 100° days) and maybe that’s why mine seem to be so tough-skinned. I don’t notice any birds on the strings. The strings are vertical with a piece of pipe as the cross-support. You just keep wrapping the string around the vine as it grows up. If you multiple stems sprout, you can wrap a new string around it. I use garden jute. It is a little thicker than white wrapping string. — mss

  4. From Laura:

    Fascinating! Ever since moving to Austin, we have had terrible luck with tomatoes – we always plant too late since we’re northerners and just can’t get it through our heads to plant so early!

    The water bottle trick is neat – I will definitely keep that in mind for future seasons.

  5. From Linda/Patchwork:

    Great information. We moved to Wimberley a short time ago, and we’re growing tomatoes for the first time in years. Did well with ‘Sweet 100s’ and ‘Yellow Boy’. Some others were hit by the April freeze. The birds did a little damage on the some, but the squirrels haven’t found them yet.
    Hoping for more in the fall.
    Thanks again for the info.

  6. From entangled; central Virginia:

    I, too, appreciated the detailed writeup even though I don’t garden in Austin. My tomatoes are just beginning to flower, with one tiny green fruit on ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’. I bought seeds of ‘Persimmon’ this year from a different vendor (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) and am anxious to see what sort of fruit develops. That plant, however, was the first and so far only one to show leaf blight. I picked off the blighted leaves and hope that drier weather will remedy the problem.

    BTW, I’ve been reading an online tomato forum lately – tomatoville.com Some very serious tomato growers hang out there, including Tatiana of TomatoBase fame.

  7. From KAT:

    What a treasure trove of useful information. We have had a long chilly June Gloom spell, so we’ve only harvested a few cherry tomatoes. I am joining a long line of squirrels, scrub jays, and hornworms waiting for the others to ripen.

  8. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Your tomato season is so different from ours in zone 5b. We are just now seeing blooms, especially on those plants started from seed way back in early March. I’m growing ‘Black Cherry’ and even here it is not as productive as other cherry type tomatoes. I’m also growing ‘Cherokee Purple’ and wonder if I will also have problems with cat-facing. And because I read about ‘Persimmon’ on one of your earlier posts, I’m growing it for the first time. Tomato-growing, and how best to do it, is definitely “local”.

    I’ll be looking forward to comparing notes since we grew three of the same varieties this year. We Austinites will have another shot at tomatoes in the fall. We have two short seasons instead of one summer one. Maybe our annual production will even out. — mss

  9. From healingmagichands:

    Yeah, what Carol said. We have some tomatoes set, but nothing ripe yet. Your post was very interesting and informative. We recently bought a book written by the guy who has the Guinness Record for amounts of tomatoes on a plant and size of plant. How to Grow World Record Tomatoes by Charles H. Wilber. We are trying his techniques and it will be interesting to see how it works out.

    What are some of his techniques? Are you blogging about them? — mss

  10. From Diana - Austin:

    Wow, MSS — what a lesson and what a lot of record-keeping! I have tons of tomatoes still ripening now, but mine didn’t start as early as yours. I’ve counted nothing, other than to note that I have a bunch of them! I started from seeds and I have Eva’s Purple Ball, Omar’s Lebanese, Black Krim, Hank, Big Boy, Celebrity and Lemon Yellow. I find that most of the non-traditional ones are less tart and more delicate in flavor, did you find that? The yellow one was far less acidic, but delicious. We’ve been doing the slices and garden basil with Buffala mozarella and olive oil. Your post has made me want to slice one up!

    I’ve been wanting to try ‘Lemon Yellow’ so thanks for the feedback. What do you feed your tomatoes? Did you pinch off suckers or let them grow? ‘Big Boy’ is a beefsteak tomato, isn’t it? Do you have any problems with it cracking or developing blossom end rot? — mss?

  11. From Jan:

    Thanks for the through info on your tomatoes. You have given me some good ideas for next year.

    Always Growing

  12. From Cindy S - NE Austin:

    Great tomato essay and thanks for adding pictures. Are the support posts for your strings just buried or did you cement them in?

    I grew Cherokee Purple from seed I’ve saved. One of them weighed in at 16oz and several were at 14. I didn’t have as much trouble with the cat facing this year. I also grew Black Krim and they were my favorites for taste. I’m trying to start cuttings for the fall garden.

    San Marzano did great for me. I can’t believe how much fruit I got from them.
    I used the buried jugs of water last year, but got too lazy this year. Watering in this heat has been a real chore without them.

    The upright posts for the supports are just buried. This is a temporary spot and as I discovered it doesn’t have the full sun I thought it did, so the tomatoes will be moving next year. Wow! Those are big ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes. What did you feed them? Or maybe I’m just not watering mine enough. I grew ‘San Marzano’ years and years ago. It was my first husband’s favorite tomato, I believe. — mss

  13. From renee (renee's roots):

    Very interesting tomato post, mss. And I love reading about all the different tomato experiences of commenters. My best performers this season are 4 purple cherokees, which are under netting and shade cloth, and still have lots of fruit still ripening on vine, no catfacing, and only a little blossom end rot early on before I laid down the soaker hose; one huge juliet plant that is so prolific I’m giving lots away, and it’s still blooming; one celebrity that set a lot of fruit but has no bird netting, so squirrels made off with all of them; one orange gold that still has lots left to ripen.

    One thing about heirloom (or any open-pollinated plant) is that as people save and pass along seeds, various strains of the same variety are going to develop. I didn’t save any of my seed because I didn’t find any of the plants I grew to be exceptional. But it sounds like your ‘Cherokee Purple’ plants are winners. What did you feed your tomatoes and how often? — mss

  14. From Blackswampgirl Kim:

    I wonder if the ‘Cherokee Purple’ is a variety that does better in northern climates? I have grown them for 3 years now, and they are wonderful–very little catfacing (and that mostly later in the season) and great, rich flavor. They were also prolific, even grown in morning sun (until about 2pm) only.

    As far as feeding goes, I planted mine last year with eggshells, compost and a dose of Tomato Tone (the Espoma organic tomato fert) but that’s the first year I used anything but eggshells and compost in the planting hole. (I’m noting this in response to your comment on Renee’s comment above mine.)

  15. From Blackswampgirl Kim:

    Hmm, nevermind, I just noticed that both Renee and Cindy are in Austin, too. There goes my “northern” idea for the Cherokee Purples! 🙂

    By the way, I agree with Cindy about the ‘Black Krim.’ They have an almost smokey flavor that I absolutely adore… they unfortunately just aren’t as prolific for me as the ‘Cherokee Purple’ are.

  16. From commonweeder:

    This is such a valuable posting. Thank you. Up here in the Massachusetts hills it will be quite a while before we can harvest any tomatoes. Right now I am just glad the plants are not rotting in the rain. I grow heirlooms including the little yellow pear tomato whose seeds are in my compost, and I pull up little seedlings all spring. They are delicious!

  17. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    What a fabulous reference! I plan to return to this one many times in case I try it next year. Even though you didn’t get the harvest of Oregon gardener, your pictures certainly motivate me.

  18. From Laura Z, Los Angeles, CA:

    I love the water bottle idea. It gets roasting hot here in LA too. I’m going to try it and see if it helps. Thanks!

  19. From Bonnie:

    I’m growing the Arkansas Traveller at the school garden. It was very slow to start but is now giving us a good crop. But I have found hornworm caterpillars all over the plant. The azoychka in my garden is doing well but I will take your advice and let them ripen longer than I have so far.

  20. From Kristi Smith:

    I really enjoyed reading about your tomato experience. I too like to grow different heirloom varieties and articles like this are very helpful for planning for next year.

    I had great luck with Purple Cherokee last summer. It was my favorite. I live in zone 9. However, I am very disappointed by my Black Krim.

  21. From Bruce Tate:

    We could never overcome the squirrels until we built Fort Knox with pvc pipe, green paint, and chicken wire.

    The squirrels made off with the other half.

  22. From Bruce Tate:

    oops! The tomato cage link: Fort Knox

  23. From Skye, Indiana:

    Interesting tomato review; I enjoyed your report. I am growing an assortment of heirlooms. My Cherokee Purple and Chocolate Cherry ones have been favorites, so far. Mine are just beginning to come in. I had my first Black Krim today and it does have more of a salty or acid taste than my Cherokees. My first year for the jaune flamee’ s and I they are producing like crazy, so pretty and flavorful. I also am loving my green zebra’s, again my first year for them. They are tangy and tasty. My Brandywines, the pink and the yellow, don’t seem very productive this year and I am having blight problems, I think because we’ve had an over abundance of rain this season. I’d like to hear if anyone has had success dealing with blight/virus conditions on their tomatoes.
    Happy gardening!

  24. From v miller Santa Barbara CA:

    You would think we could grow any tomato in Santa Barbara. Not quite true. The very best of all is Paul Robson delicious in every way.
    I have tried to grow red Brandywine for 3 years with no luck
    I am excited to try Carmello this year.