TomatoMania- Derby

pierces prideWelcome Back TomatoManiacs. It’s Monday and that means TomatoMania is back too.
We made the first of our contest winning tomato recipes last week. It was a delicious Tomato and Fruit Salad. Keep coming back here every Monday because as the season progresses all be making all the contest winning recipes.
But this week we have Scott. He has been traveling with his seedlings and he back just long enough to get a competition of his own going. He calls the The Derby. And it’s a tomato race. I think you’ll find it very interesting. It is especially helpful to impatient gardners like myself. So get ready to learn something from this Derby.
Scott in his nearly maniacal need to know everything there is to know about tomatoes is having a race. A race between tomato varieties. And like all good Derbys, speed is the key. Because sometimes you just can’t wait ALL summer long for that first perfect tomato out of the garden!

tomatomania derbyAND THEYRE OFF!
The soil was prepped, the pots filled and the seedlings planted. 
On April 5th , just before the nation’s best three-year-olds lined up in Louisville, Tomatomania started a west coast derby of its own; a Tomato Derby!  The goal?  To find out which tomato produces fastest! It’s a quest to find the perfect remedy for our terminal tomato impatience.
This is truly our second annual derby.  The first was held last year at the venerable White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut. Twelve pairs of plants, one planted in the ground and one situated next to it in a container, were lined up and set to go.  They all received the same care, water, etc. and we anxiously monitored their progress.
The winner?  Matina, an heirloom, followed closely by Stupice, a well known Czech heirloom and Prairie Fire, a newer hybrid.  All these are on the smaller side and red.  All three were growing in containers.  So the Derby not only identified these swift producers but also proved what we’ve known from personal experience for a long time.  Growing in containers hastens the fruiting cycle!
Yes, the plants in containers fruited as much as two weeks earlier than their partners in the ground.  Why?  The soil in containers is warmer, pure and simple.  That reality truly does make a difference, especially early in the season.  A good soil mix and perfect drainage also help the cause.
For the west coast derby this year we feature last year’s winners so that they might defend their titles and so that we have the best of the best vying against each other this summer.  We incorporated more hybrids after leaning heavily on the heirlooms in last year’s line-up.  The other ’09 entrants include Garden Delight (red cherry), Jenny (orange cherry), Fourth of July (small red), Golden Mama (golden plum), Early Girl (medium pink/red), Champion (small red), and Scorospelka (round red).
We didn’t plant in the ground this time since we’ve already established the ground/container differential, but mostly because in the Ojai setting where we’re doing the trial it’s just too difficult.  Ok, it’s really because I’m too busy (and lazy) and the soil would need lots of work.  But we should get some interesting results and can’t wait to share that with you.
All the plants included in the derby are what’s known as “early” or “short season” tomatoes.  According to the tags (days to maturity) they will all fruit in less than 72 days.  When you realize that some of the larger beefsteaks take as many as 115 days to fruit you understand why they’re identified this way.
Especially valuable in colder areas of the country, where frost and rapidly decreasing fall temperatures finish the tomato season much too early, these tomatoes will perform well anywhere.  They are also especially wonderful for coastal areas or any area with cooler/foggy summers as they will fruit and flower in cooler temps.  That’s why they’re early!
tomato Derby Ojai.In areas with long summers a gardener can plant these in succession through the early part of the planting season to produce a constant supply of summer fruit.  The first to come in, these can also be the last to fruit in the winter if they’ve been well cared for since cooler weather on the back end of the summer won’t bother them either!  In California these often qualify as “winter” tomatoes. Yes, most early tomatoes are small and red but there are some exceptions if you like a little rainbow early in the season. 
I’ve heard many people say that they don’t concentrate on these early varieties since they don’t taste like a good summer tomato.  Hmmm.  OK, I’ll give you that the smaller varieties may not taste as robust as a big beefsteak picked in August but hey, they are quite a different animal.
But here’s the cure for that and the real challenge.  PICK THEM WHEN THEYRE  RIPE
That’s right; avoid grabbing them off the vine the minute they turn color.  They’re not ready yet!  We’re all very likely to do that early in the season as we struggle to contain our lust for tomatoes but we’re doing ourselves (and our tastebuds) a disservice.  The sugar/acid balance in the tomato hasn’t reached its peak yet and it’s not as tasty as it can be.  Being patient is much easier later in the season when you already have a counter full of tomatoes.
Try it.  Make sure those tomatoes are softening up a bit before you grab them. This is the biggest advantage you have in the home garden. Then, and only then, will you truly taste the beginning of tomato season. 
Scott Daigre