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Tomatoes are both great and not so great

By Urban Harvest

Tomatoes are both great and not so great

Mid-June is in many ways the pinnacle of the year’s vegetable growing cycle. My dinners these days frequently feature full plates of sweet corn, snap beans, new potatoes and wonderful salads featuring sweet skinned Asian cucumbers, garden mint, multi-colored bell peppers and, of course, many kinds of tomatoes.

Although all of these veggies make wonderful eating, it is the tomatoes that I never seem to get enough. Part of the reason is their diversity – the colors when ripe: red, pink, blackish, orange, yellow and greenish. All have their own virtues: unique flavors, beautiful shapes or reliable high production.

Growing these tomatoes here is another problem. But it pales by comparison to the problems growers in Mexico, Florida or California suffer when they try to sell these gems here. Growers in those places start out with cheaper land and much cheaper labor. Hourly farm wages in California and Florida run around $7.50 to $9.50 while in Mexico they are closer to $2. Even with rising fuel prices, it is fairly easy to get so-called tomatoes to Houston at prices well below what a family farmer here is willing to make off a piece of local real estate and hard labor.

Tomatoes that are grown for long distance marketing are varieties selected for the ability to produce uniform sizes all at once on poor soils that are often irrigated with saline water. As well, these must not squash or spoil before they reach the Houston area consumer. These logistical issues eliminate perhaps 1,000 old heirloom varieties and nearly all but a few of the several hundred commercially available varieties.

But even so, these “shipping wonder” tomatoes would taste much better if they were picked once they begin to color and were ripened at room temperature. Commercially, such tomatoes are called ‘vine-ripened” and deservedly command premium prices. This is mostly because they must be harvested, handled and packaged much more carefully, and sold less than four days from harvest. In-stead, understandably, growers prefer to harvest all the green ones at once and ripen them artificially just before sale with ethylene gas.

So anyone in our area hoping to get quantities of gourmet tomatoes needs to either learn how to grow them or alternatively to come out in June to our Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers Market, on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon at 3000 Richmond Ave.

We have spring and fall tomato growing seasons in Houston. June and July are good times to start seedlings for the fall tomato crop. Planted now, they will ripen in October through December because the seeds will have some chance of producing plants with flowers on them in September-October when temperatures are right for pollination. See my general instructions for growing tomatoes, “Ten Tips for Growing Top Tomatoes,” at the Urban Harvest gardening advice website.

Disease on your plants will be minor regardless of variety, if you have an excellent soil food web built up by years of mulching with quality biological mulches and you have stayed away from tilling. So you can try the many open-pollinated ones.

  • The Green Zebra tomato when it is ripe is yellowish green with green stripes and has a fruity taste.
  • “Black” tomatoes are actually very dark red to brown. Black Krim is a Crimean variety with delicious rich flavors. Cherokee Purple is a sweet and rich indigenous heirloom. Conroe Black is a productive delicious cross that area landscaper Will Fleming made from Louisiana Black and Early Girl.
  • Yellow tomatoes are often orange or gold by the time they taste best, and most are very mild. Lemon boy is mild flavored but pale yellow. Sun Gold is a rich, fruity highly productive hybrid cherry that is my current favorite. Yellow Pear is an old heirloom that in one judging contest I did won best of the show for flavor when ripened to orange.
  • Of the productive red ones, the French Marmande is probably my favorite larger red heirloom. Of the unproductive pink ones, Brandywine has no rivals and is the best flavored of any I have ever tasted.

But there are hundreds more to taste and try. For tomato lovers, varieties are the spices of life.

This column is produced by Urban Harvest. Learn about gardening classes, community gardens and orchards, farmers markets and more at Urban Harvest website. Article is written by Bob Randall, Ph.D., who is the former executive director and a cofounder of Urban Harvest. He is also the author of "Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro-Houston". You may contact him at