Go, Tomato

February 15 gets its own heart sticker on my Hello Kitty calendar -- it means I've rolled past Valentine's, and frost days are likely behind us in Houston. Now I can hazard the other thing I'm a fool for: growing tomatoes.

Tomatoes are native to mountain streams of the Peruvian Andes, so they need lots of sunshine, cool nights and a steady supply of water, with good drainage. Obviously, the problem is going to be the lack of cool nights, so cultivating tomatoes is a race, the finish line being a plant full of fruit before night temps get above 70.

Celebrity and Champion varieties thrive on the Gulf Coast, and they're the most popular, but other successful breeds include Dona, Big Boy, Carmello, President, Early Girl, Better Boy and Fantastic. Evan at Southwest Fertilizer on Bissonnet said the store was selling many types of tomatoes as fast as the growers could supply them. When I visited on Saturday, there was a mob. I picked up a Carnival and a Better Boy for the garden, and the pictured Top Gun, which does well in a patio pot, for 99¢ each.

Determinate tomatoes set fruit all at once, while indeterminates grow all summer, which doesn't matter -- there won't be any fruit when our city gets sultry.

Tomatoes prefer raised gardens or 5-plus-gallon pots, for drainage (Southwest has ideal black-plastic, 7-gallon pots for $2.99). Basic soil formula is 1 part topsoil, 1 part compost, and 1 part sand. I'm testing a cheap cheat from Lowe's: 2 parts Black Velvet Cow Manure/Soil and 1 part peat moss.

I snipped the bottom leaves of my transplants and buried them deep to get better rooting; if they're tall, I suggest burying them sideways in a trench. Then I mixed slow-release fertilizer in the dirt at the bottom of the hole (blood meal for organic), wet the soil thoroughly, and fertilized with half-strength soluble fertilizer. In a week or two, I'll commence full-strength fertilizing.

A hidden threat to city tomatoes: streetlamps. Plant underneath one and you'll get zero pomodoros. Tomatoes need 6-plus hours of sunlight, and dark too.

Tomatoes are like Valentines. You may water them on alternate days--not too much, not too little--but you should spend some time with them every day, whether you're in the mood or not.

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John Kiely
Contact: John Kiely