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Saturday, April 19, 2014

If we’re not eating tomatoes, we’re planning for them

By Annie Calovich
The Wichita Eagle

I don’t know if it’s because of a bad tomato crop in 2011 or despite it, but there’s been plenty of conversation about tomatoes to go around for a January.

A friend of mine who is allergic to tomatoes said her husband wonders why she still grows them. One could wonder why, in January, we speak of them. It doesn’t matter. They’re the common denominator among gardeners. If we can’t eat them — either because we’re allergic (and I think I’m borderline, but I don’t want to find out for sure) or because it’s not the weather for growing them — be assured we will be planning for a way to eat them.

Johnson’s Garden Center on 13th Street has tapped into this desire by growing tomatoes in black plastic bags in its greenhouse this winter. Customers can pick from the vine — a pretty neat prospect in January — or buy already picked tomatoes that sit in a basket by the cash register.

The price is $3.29 a pound if you pick your own, and I couldn’t resist the sensory experience. Apart from the joy of looking through the tall vines for the ripest, reddest tomatoes, customers can revel in looking at other tomato plants in various stages of growth. Young plants in their deep-green sturdiness and promise are a sight for sore eyes. The staggered plantings will provide a continuous harvest through winter.

If you’d like to start tomato plants from seed, you can shop now for the varieties you want, but it will be a while before you’ll be able to start sowing. The usual time to plant tomatoes outside is early May, though the weather may push us earlier or later. A little review of the past few springs in Wichita revealed some early May days when soil temperatures were not warm enough for tomatoes. Extension agent Rebecca McMahon usually starts her tomatoes from seed four to five weeks before planting them outside.

But gardeners who want to try their hand at grafting tomatoes can get started a little earlier. The Extension Service will give people the chance to learn how to graft and to take home some grafted tomato plants at a workshop from 1 to 4 p.m. Feb. 17 as part of its annual market vegetable growers conference. The grafting demo is limited to 50 people, so sign up soon if you’re interested (2012ckmvgw.eventbrite.com or 316-660-0100; cost is $10). But be warned that if you don’t have a greenhouse, you’ll have to have some way to keep your grafted tomato plants alive indoors for quite a while before they’ll be able to go outside.

Grafting tomatoes is gaining steam because it combines the rootstocks of hardy, disease-resistant varieties with the grafts of varieties more prized for their flavorful fruits, such as heirlooms. The resulting tomatoes need a bit more care to protect their graft and are more expensive, but they also have more disease resistance, even allowing tomatoes to be planted in the same spot every year.

Most of us probably will not do grafting ourselves (just as most of us will not start our own tomato seeds), so those interested can purchase grafted tomatoes from some mail-order companies.

“The spring catalog from Territorial Seed Co., www.territorialseed.com, is listing grafted tomato plants, which I’m planning to try,” one reader wrote me last week. A grafted Brandywine from Territorial is going for $7.50 plus shipping. A non-grafted Brandywine sells for $3.75.

One lesson to take from the greenhouse set-up at Johnson’s this winter is that it’s possible to grow tomatoes in containers. Rebecca says she’s amazed at the number of new varieties of hanging-basket tomatoes she’s seeing in seed catalogs this winter.

“I think it’s a response to the interest of people growing in containers who don’t have space,” she said. “The other nice thing is most are cherry tomatoes. They’re kid-friendly and easy to deal with. They ripen earlier. There’s the flexibility to bring them in if it gets too cold. So you get the tomatoes earlier, and most new varieties are going to be pretty prolific and have a pretty decent flavor. And cherries tend to tolerate the heat better.”

That’s a lot of advantages. One cherry tomato that Rebecca expects will make a particular splash is Indigo Rose. It has dark purple skin, the darkest of any tomato. For those of us who like larger tomatoes, a beefsteak-type tomato of 6 to 8 ounces called Container’s Choice Red is a new option for big containers this year.

Let the mouth-watering begin.

Reach Annie Calovich at acalovich@wichitaeagle.com or 316-268-6596.

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