2020 has been a wonderful year for tomatoes. We had a March freeze that set things back a bit but all the plants in the garden recovered and throughout the spring we were blessed with the cool nights that tomatoes love. The rains were few and far between as the spring period progressed but with irrigation to supply water to the roots and less disease pressure from leaves constantly wet from rain, the tomatoes loaded up like never before. There were more hybrids and fewer heirlooms in the planting this year and that may have been a factor. Regardless, even disease-prone heirloom varieties like Marianna’s Peace and Mortgage Lifter managed to pump out a bunch of big delicious tomatoes. Unfortunately this rally was quickly followed by dead leaves and no production.

BLT time

Another heirloom that proved to be super delicious was Kentucky Beefsteak. This big orange beauty made for the best BLT that we had all season and we ate a lot of them. Even a mediocre homegrown tomato can’t detract from bacon, lettuce, mayo, black pepper, Creole seasoning salt and toasted Asiago bread, but a variety like Kentucky Beefsteak sure kicks things up a notch.

The hybrids have been especially impressive. Two Big Beefs and one Super Fantastic produced more than enough for us to enjoy and share. They were also very tasty. Jamestown hybrid was another star in the garden. Lots of beautiful tomatoes and they “ate good” too. Better Boy was very good but the plant has been a monster—it fell into the raised bed next to where it was planted and bent the cage over as it covered a good part of both beds. If I ever plant it again I’ll need a sky hook or maybe my neighbor can weld up a tower for me to use. A Better Bush transplant jumped into my shopping cart one day like an old friend that I’d forgotten about. It was a nice compact plant that loaded up with big delicious tomatoes. Sometimes it pays to revisit old friends! Carmello and Celebrity were also big and productive plants. Ditto for Champion II. All three were lip-smacking good. Damsel hybrid was a repeat in this years’ garden—big pink tomatoes with tons of flavor. Galahad F1 also showed promise with big red tomatoes and lots of disease tolerance. Dixie Red F1 grew into a compact plant with huge clusters of big red tomatoes that were (to be kind) flavor challenged. Similarily, Grand Marshall and Sun Leaper won’t see the Adams garden again. Mountain Rouge had flavor and good vigor but it seemed rather susceptible to Early Blight (actually, most tomatoes are). Also it cracked a lot, hence it didn’t last long after harvest.

Purple Boy, a new hybrid with disease resistance, promised to outclass Cherokee Purple and it did to some extent. As the season went along, we noticed that it was susceptible to fruit rot and the size was often not much larger than a big cherry tomato. We might try it again—it did taste good—but one or two plants should be enough.

Tonopah was another new hybrid that we tried. It made a fairly compact plant with huge pinkish-red tomatoes that too often rested on the ground. They had to be picked at first color or fruit rot was a problem and the flavor/texture was ‘ meh’.

SV7846

SV7846TH is a new, as yet, un-named tomato from the Seeds and Such catalog. Next year it will get a name (I recommend “Hard Ball”). This tomato was so firm that a little league team could play a couple of innings with one and the moms could whip up some fresh salsa with what was left. Needless to say, my first impression was “I need to pull this thing out”! Then I realized it did have some flavor and it did make for a long-lasting Pico de Gallo. Then I thought “at least the stinkbugs will leave it alone”. No, they liked it too. Spot spraying clusters with a synthetic pyrethroid solved that problem and we harvested a load of smallish bright red “Hard Balls”. I would probably plant it again.

Another interesting tomato was Tutti Frutti hybrid. It’s a stuffing tomato-rather hollow inside like a pepper but without the pepper flavor. Prepare your favorite cheese or tuna stuffing and enjoy! It delivers delicious tomato flavor and you provide the rest.

Bad Horsey III is a breeder’s line that I’ve been selecting from for several years. It produces wonderful gold tomatoes with red striping and old fashioned heirloom flavor but it’s not the healthiest plant in the garden so I love the name but it may have to go away. Chef’s Choice Bicolor may take its place—same wonderful red/yellow fruit, large size and a healthier plant. I also tried Chef’s Choice Striped and the fruit was good though smaller than Bicolor plus the plant seemed a bit weaker too. Marinara is a large Roma type tomato that we liked breaded and fried green or for canning. We canned quite a few tomatoes this year and we use all shapes, sizes and colors (with the exception of purple tomatoes=not appetizing, the yellow/red-streaked varieties look a bit odd in the jar too).

The eggplant crop was overproductive as usual. We had two green eggplants-Louisiana Oval Green and Galaxy Green (a smaller ¼ pound,Asian version of LOG), Campana Negra (a large Italian var.) and Southern Pink (another Asian Hybrid). Unfortunately the online seed company that Galaxy Green and Southern Pink came from is out of business or perhaps quarantined somewhere in the Orient. The eggplants were all good and we fried some up for our cheesy, eggplant parmesan. It’s now in the freezer waiting for a cold night next winter to be thawed out and cooked while we plan for next season and sip a glass or two of wine.

Our peppers got off to a slow start with the cool nights early this spring. There were some stand outs though. Of the sweet peppers a golden orange pepper named “Just Sweet” was small, not much bigger than your average jalapeno, with thinner walls and a crisp delicious flavor it made beautiful rings to add to a pizza or a salad. Dolce Rojo was also sweet and a good bit larger with thicker walls. It also makes beautiful rings but it’s thick enough to stand up to dicing

Pica de Gallo

I tried several spicy Korean peppers this year. The standout was Wa Mae Wo with emphasis on the Wo if you’re adding it to your Pico de Gallo. One of these diced with a couple of jalapenos will get your attention. Add a couple more and smoke may come out of your ears, etc. Bueno Mulato was muy caliente too. If added to the salsa while still purple (it turns red at maturity) it stands out so at least you can avoid it as you dip your chip into the salsa, if you’re so inclined.

The cucumbers were good. We made several batches of bread and butter pickles early in the season and then the boss said no more. I’ve always wanted to appreciate fresh cukes with onion, oil and vinegar as so many Texans do, but I think the white vinegar was just a bit too harsh for my aging taste buds. This year I decided to make some that I liked. I had some milder rice wine vinegar, canola oil (I tried olive oil but it gets too thick when cold), brown sugar (instead of white), onion, minced garlic, black pepper and Creole seasoning salt. I keep it in the fridge and shovel in a few forkfuls as I’m making a sandwich. I LIKE IT!! Some of our favorite cukes this year were Gherking, Cross Country, Zapata and EOS PMT (Beit Alpha type). Even the Gherkin hybrids worked fine for slices after partially peeling them.

Butta F1 an Italian gold zucchini was ridiculously productive. At one point I thought the vine borers might finish it off but I decided to try a technique we’ve mentioned for years—simply outgrow the borers. I poured Arbor Gate soil mix on the stems in several places and kept the soil watered. The idea is to root the stems as they grow to stay ahead of the borers. It worked. We shared golden zucchini until the neighbors started hiding from us.

Another squash, this one Korean—Meot Jaeng I Ae was a strong growing vine and it made beautiful light green zucchini-looking fruit. I diced it up, micro-waved it for three minutes, dotted with butter/seasoning and gave it another minute—it was “very good”.

The okra got off to a slow start because the rabbits kept eating all the leaves. After I surrounded the plants with chicken wire barriers they grew tall enough to put the leaves out of bunny range. Now we’re beginning to see regular harvests of some of my red crosses and skinny okra. Next we expect to have some chunky Okie okra from our friends at Texas Gardener magazine.

Each year we seem to refine our fried okra efforts a bit so here’s the new routine. We cut up the okra in nice chunks—about ½ inch seems good. We also dice tomatoes (just the way Grandma Mount did) and they get breaded and fried right along with the okra. The tomato pieces become small bits of red/brown flavor bursts that make the fried okra zing!

We’ve found that the two of us working together makes for a better product with good crispy batter. In a medium to large bowl we add an egg to some milk and whisk it up. A couple of handfuls of the okra/tomato pieces are added to the milk and egg mixture. If it’s a small batch we may put it all in.

The wet hands person makes sure a handful is coated good, shakes off the excess and drops it in a gallon plastic bag with half and half Louisiana Fish Fry and Tempura Seafood Batter Mix. The dry hands person shakes the bag back and forth to coat each peace while also carefully breaking up any clumps that form. These coated pieces are then transferred to paper plates in more or less in a single layer. The process continues until two or three platefuls are ready and a pan with peanut oil is cranked up for the frying process.

When the oil is hot (a single piece should sizzle) we add a layer. As the okra/tomato mixture cooks we lift and turn over the pieces as best we can. This is a little more work than using a deep fryer but we use less oil. Air Fryer? I don’t think so. The oil is part of the recipe. Usually we can use the same plates that we spread the coated okra on to dry, for the cooked product. Just add fresh paper towels. After we get a plate full we sprinkle with Creole seasoning salt and try not to eat it all before the rest of our dinner is ready.

As the summer heat and dry weather progresses we are finding it difficult to harvest beautiful tomatoes but we settle for the edible ones with a few blemishes. Frankly my innards are complaining that I may have overdosed on tomatoes plus the jujube crop is huge as usual and crisp, sweet fruit, high in fiber might just save the day. Anticipate more than you ever wanted to know about jujubes in my next blog.

Bill Adams

Written by Bill Adams William D. (Bill) Adams is the author of numerous articles and his photos have been published in a number of magazines, calendars and books. He is the co-author/photographer of “Commonsense Vegetable Gardening for the South” with Tom LeRoy and he is the co-author of “The Lone Star Gardener’s Book of Lists” with Lois Trigg Chaplin. Bill and Tom also teamed up for another book—THE SOUTHERN KITCHEN GARDEN. Most recently Bill authored THE TEXAS TOMATO LOVER’S HANDBOOK a guide to growing the most delicious tomatoes on the planet. This latest book published by Texas A & M University Press. Bill worked in mass media most of his career appearing on radio and TV programs, and writing a weekly column. Adams also served as the Harris County Master Gardener Coordinator with over seven hundred active members. These days, after retiring from the Extension Service, Bill is concentrating his energies on gardening, writing and photography. He is a much-requested speaker at Garden and Civic Clubs and he is a regular contributor of articles and photography to Neil Sperry’s Gardens magazine. Bill has been a member of Garden Writers Assn. since 1972 and has served several terms as a Southern regional director.