Are heirloom tomatoes big or small? Are they red or orange or yellow? Are they wrinkly? Are they meaty? What do they taste like?
What the heck does heirloom mean?
Of course, heirloom has nothing to do with size or color or rugosity or taste. It has most to do with age. The most common definition of an heirloom variety of any crop is one that is old — usually people say at least fifty years old, old enough to have been passed down for a couple of generations, like a piece of heirloom furniture.
Then another key part of the common definition is that the crop is open-pollinated. This means that if you grew the seed from it you would get a plant that produced the same fruit. So, if I had an heirloom tomato that looked striped and was huge, and I sowed seeds from it, the plants that grew would give me fruit that were similarly striped and huge.
That doesn’t happen with hybrids. Sow a seed from a hybrid tomato and you get a plant that makes fruit that are at least a little different from the original hybrid tomato. (In fact, I did this with the Champion hybrid tomato cultivar this summer, and the fruit from that plant is acceptable, but different from its parent.)
An heirloom tomato, then: at least fifty years old, and open-pollinated.
Which of the tomatoes pictured above is an heirloom? There’s no way you could know unless I told you. How could you know how old the variety is? How could you know whether it came from an open-pollinated or hybrid seed? You never could, so I’ll tell you.
It’s not the one on the right, the red one. That is a variety called San Diego, also known as San Diego Hybrid, originally known as 7718. Normally, this variety is not quite so big nor as corrugated. This specimen is unusual. I like this variety’s meaty insides and high yields. I grow it every year. But it’s a hybrid, so I don’t save any seed. I grow it from seedlings I buy at the nursery.
The heirloom tomato is the one on the left, the small orange one. Called Jaune Flamme, it came to our country from France. It may not look like much, but the fruits are so juicy and sweet, and I love their vibrant persimmon color, which I add to salsas for effect. If you know the hybrid cherry tomato called Sungold, then you can think of Jaune Flamme as big Sungolds.
I will save the seed of some Flamme and grow them again next year. As an heirloom, it’s open-pollinated, so I can do that. It should grow “true”, as they say.
June is the lush month. June is the jungle month, particularly toward the end. The days are at their longest and they are warm, so the garden begins to look verdant and tangled in a most wonderful way. Squash vines overtake your walking paths. Corn stalks tower overhead. Cherry tomato plants drip with red fruit. Cucumber and beans climb up their cages and strings (pictured above).
I make sure to take pictures of my garden around the solstice in late June since it never looks more bountiful.
But there’s also a sense of urgency this month. It is your last chance to plant most of those warm-season vegetables. Put them in now or you’ll have to wait until next year because, planted in July, they won’t have enough time in the heat of summer to mature a crop. (The main exceptions are corn and beans, which can be successfully planted in July.)
Below are details on doings in the vegetable garden, some fruit tree thoughts, and a few other uniquely June opportunities:
Sow and plant
– Sow or plant these vegetables: basil, beans, corn, cucumber, sweet potato, tomatillo, celery, chard, chives
– Plant seedlings of these vegetables: eggplant, pepper, melon, pumpkin, squash, tomato; if seeds of these vegetables are sown in June, especially later in the month, there’s a real risk of only getting a small crop before it cools too much at the end of the year since they take a long time to grow from seed to harvestable fruit
– Don’t bother planting cilantro; sorry to rain on your salsa parade, but cilantro is not well-suited to growing in the summer in Southern California; you’d think it would grow well with other salsa ingredients like tomatoes and peppers, but it won’t; it will start to flower fast because of the warm weather and, in my opinion, it’s not worthwhile; cilantro naturally grows in the cooler weather of late summer through the winter and spring
– Sow or plant pole beans to be used as temporary, summer shade on east- or west-facing walls or windows by growing them up strings under an eave; you can also use grapes for the purpose of shading a house
– Consider growing your own Halloween pumpkins and decorative fall corn; now’s the time to plant those in order to harvest by late October; last year, I grew the colorful corn variety called Glass Gem, which I posted photos of here
– Plant avocado and citrus trees; they feel right at home in the warmth of early summer and soon prove it to you with a flush of new leaves, which gives you an immediate sense of success that you won’t get when planting in most of the rest of the year; if you plant one, see my post “How to water a new avocado tree”
Late June new growth on a baby Cara Cara navel orange. The new growth is lime green.
Harvest and eat
This Jubilee corn, photographed on June 7, is about two weeks from harvest.
– Eat these vegetables (had you planted them): tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, corn, greens, onion, garlic, peas, lettuce, beets, carrots, peppers
– Don’t fret over tomatoes that have blossom end rot (rotten bottom of the fruit); it happens often to the first fruits of May and June but not to the later fruits of summer, and there’s nothing you can do about it despite what someone selling a product might claim (it’s just a symptom of the cooler weather of spring/early summer); incidentally, if you do apply a product for blossom end rot, you’ll find that — voila! — it worked: the placebo effect
– Eat these berries and fruits (had you planted them): blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, avocados (Hass, Lamb, Reed), Valencia oranges, lemons and limes, Pixie and Gold Nugget mandarins, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, passion fruit
June avocados: Reed on the left, and Lamb on the right
(Why do I mention what you could be harvesting and eating? So you can plan. If you want to be harvesting tomatoes next June, for example, then plant them next March. Or if you want to be eating avocados from your yard in June, then plant a Hass, Lamb, or Reed tree.)
– Water plants for “thrival” not mere survival; don’t make the mistake that I have in some past summers of being stingy with water on vegetables and fruit trees, which lowers production and defeats the point; if you scratch into the dirt around the roots of your plants, you’ll know for sure how much water they have access to, as I wrote about in this post
– Appreciate and observe the summer solstice (June 20): Have a late dinner out in the yard while you notice where the sun sets — isn’t it fascinating how far northwest it falls below the horizon on this day?
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A couple years ago I planted a Sungold cherry tomato that grew into a jungle: ten feet wide, taller than me, I wanted a machete to hack into the middle to grasp those golden fruits. I supported the plant in no manner.
That’s an option for tomato growers, no support. But most of us give some kind of props. When I lived in Lesotho, I was charmed to find that many people used branches pruned off their peach trees to stick into the ground and let their tomatoes crawl over. This kept most of the fruit off the dirt and made picking involve less bending.
Those are two of the main goals of supporting the sprawling vines of the tomato plant: unblemished fruit and easy harvesting. My giant old Sungold plant gave me neither gift — because I hadn’t given it the gift of something to lean on.
These days, I set five-foot tall cages around all of my cherry tomato plants, two-and-a-half-foot tall cages around many of my other tomato plants, and occasionally stake or refrain from supporting a tomato plant at all.
Those are what I see as the four common methods. Each has a place, and each has advantages and disadvantages.
Other methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I doubt I’ll ever bother with again include tying to a chain link fence (too much effort), cages built with stakes and string (too much effort and a pain to take down), those little inverted wire pyramid tunnels that are sold as tomato cages (a pain to stick in the ground, can only handle small tomato varieties that would do fine without any support), and twisting up a string that hangs from an eave of the roof (see photo below: looks cool but takes a lot of twisting and pruning work).
One of the four common methods (no support, staked, short cage, tall cage) is usually best for a given situation. It depends on a number of factors, the principle ones being the growth habit of the tomato variety, the money you want to invest in materials, the time you have to tend to the plants, the space you have for storing cages or stakes, whether you’re going for maximum yield, and how much land you’re devoting to the plant.
Below are photos of different varieties of tomatoes in my yard today, May 26, being supported in the four different ways. I note why I chose each method according to the context.
‘Early Girl’ variety: No support
This plant is growing in a somewhat remote corner where I am unlikely to tend it well but it can sprawl as widely as its heart desires. I also didn’t stake or cage it because I don’t want the plant reaching tall since I want the avocado tree next to it to get maximum sun.
‘Champion’ seedling: Staked
This plant is growing in a location where I can’t let it get wide or it will block a walking path, so I’ll be tying it up this six-foot tall stake and pruning the lateral branches a bit. Tying and pruning will take some time, but it’s only a single plant. It’s a volunteer from a Champion plant that grew here last year. Champion is a hybrid, so I’m unsure of how good the fruit on this plant will be; therefore, I’m not concerned about getting the most fruit possible. (Those tomatoes in the photo at the top are the Champions from last year.)
‘San Diego’ variety: Short cage
This variety of tomato has reached about four feet tall in my yard in past years, so the short cage should be sufficient. Vines will eventually reach the top and cascade down a bit.
‘Sweet 100’ variety: Tall cage
Cherry tomatoes have the smallest fruit but the largest canopy of foliage. By the end of June, this plant will already be spilling over the cage’s rim. If I had a ten-foot tall cage it probably wouldn’t be tall enough, but then I’d need a ladder to pick the tomatoes. Other tomato varieties, like ‘San Marzano’, grow large canopies as well. See a photo of a ‘San Marzano’ plant in one of these five-foot tall cages a few Julys back in my post titled “San Diego tomatoes, and supporting tomatoes.”
I’ll post an update in July showing all of the tomato plants pictured above so we can see how each one has cooperated with its method of training and support.
A note on my cages: I made them from concrete reinforcement wire (steel remesh) that I bought at Lowes. I got the idea from Don Shor of the Davis Garden Show (here’s a post I wrote about the excellent Davis Garden Show.) Similar cages can be bought, including square or triangular shapes that fold for easy storage, but they’re more expensive than homemade. As regards cost, do remember that these cages are versatile and can be used to support pole beans, cucumbers, peas, etc. I’ve found them a worthwhile investment.
This is a short YouTube video I made showing how I make my tomato cages.
Here’s a sketch of a chart ranking each of the four methods according to their advantage in the categories you might care about (click to enlarge); this might help you make a decision about how to support your tomato plants, or it can give you thoughts for next year: if you planted in March and haven’t supported them yet, your plants are probably already jungles. In that case, happy hunting for the fruit!
Please let me know if you have had different experiences with the methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I mentioned above, or if you have a totally different favorite method; maybe there’s something I haven’t tried that will be the ultimate. Also let me know if you’d like more information about any of the methods I mentioned.
What’s wrong with this picture, besides the fact that it’s not well composed? If we lived in Oregon, nothing. If we lived in Missouri, nothing. But in Southern California, you don’t usually pick both tomatoes and broccoli from the garden at the same time, especially here in early November, especially for weeks on end. Yet here I am, harvesting a bunch of tomatoes still while also harvesting our first heads of broccoli.
Usually, it’s tomatoes (sown in early summer) harvested until about Thanksgiving, and only then are the first broccoli heads ready (sown in late summer). So there’s an overlap of a couple weeks, max.
This year, I found some broccoli seedlings at the nursery in late August (probably sown in July) — about a month earlier than they usually show up — and decided to buy and plant them as an experiment. The results are in: the heads formed well and taste excellent. Apparently, planting broccoli in late August (or sowing in July) is not too early, this year anyway. Also this year, it looks like we’ll be ripening oodles of tomatoes past Thanksgiving with this warm and dry weather having no end in sight.
I have a challenge for you: Can you tell them apart? Which one is tomato and which is persimmon? And how do you know — color, sheen, blossom end marking, shape? The answer is found in the comments.