Growing Fall tomatoes in Texas can be one of the most disheartening endeavors a gardener can attempt. It's a common scenario: The blistering summer heat finally ends in September and the temperatures recede back into the 80's - sometimes all the way through November. To us optimistic gardeners this seems like the perfect time to plant out a 2nd crop of tomatoes. The tomato plants grow wonderfully and the cooler nights provide the perfect temperature for flowering and fruit set. We watch the healthy green tomatoes grow to their full potential and then we wait for the first sign of color...and we wait.....and wait. Just when the first tomatoes begin to ripen the nights begin getting cooler and cooler and suddenly the forecast shows a cold front on the horizon that will threaten the whole crop, so we start making fried green tomatoes in an attempt to gain something from all of our hard work. Sound familiar?
Growing a successful Fall tomato crop in Texas takes careful planning and an awareness of a few key factors:
Timing of planting
Fall tomatoes should be planted as transplants around the beginning of August in order for the plants to have enough time to grow to the ripening stage before it gets too late in the fall. The tricky part about this is finding transplants for sale in July. Even if you do find transplants, chances are they won't necessarily be varieties that will meet the rest of the criteria outlined below. I highly recommend starting your own transplants, which comes with its own set of challenges because this will need to be done in mid-July when it is 100+ degrees outside.
Transplants need sufficient light in order to grow healthy, strong, and bushy. The problem with trying to start seedling trays in the sun in Texas in July is that the soil will heat up to a temperature not suitable for healthy root growth. You can work around this by starting transplants in a garage or work space with LED lights (click here to read my blog about starting plants indoors). Setting up a LED grow light in a garage will allow you to get maximum light needed for healthy growth, while keeping the seedlings out of the damaging Texas sun until they have reached a healthy size. You can use fans or air conditioning to grow the seedlings in a comfortable environment (somewhere between 75 and 85 degrees would be ideal).
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Before you purchase your seedlings, or grow them yourself with LED lights, it is essential to understand a few terms when it comes to tomatoes. The first set of terms to become familiar with is determinate vs. indeterminate. When you purchase seeds this designation should always be clearly marked on the packet or website.
Determinate tomatoes are sometimes referred to as "bush tomatoes" because they will generally grow to about 4 or 5 feet and set fruit that will ripen within a short window. They require less trellising because of their size so they can be grown with cages or stakes.
Indeterminate tomatoes, or vine tomatoes, will continue growing indefinitely throughout the season and will continuously set fruit over a long period of time until conditions become unfavorable for them to do so. These tomatoes require taller trellises and a lot more time.
Early vs. late season
The next characteristic to look for when selecting tomatoes is early vs. late season. Early season tomatoes are those that produce faster, or earlier in the season. Late season tomatoes, as you might have already guessed, take much longer to produce.
Size is another major factor when selecting a fall tomato in Texas. The larger beefsteak tomatoes take a long time to ripen on the vine and may not be the best choice when time is of the essence. Selecting medium to small slicing tomatoes, or cherry and grape tomatoes, will ensure a more successful harvest of ripe tomatoes over the course of the season.
Now that you are familiar with some of the characteristics of tomato plants, it is time to select seeds that fit some of the more favorable conditions for the fall in Texas. These characteristics will include one or all of the following: determinate, early season, and smaller size.
Equipped with this knowledge it is time to purchase seeds to start your successful fall tomato planting. I highly recommend you source your seeds from a quality supplier who clearly categorizes their seed stock with well defined characteristics. Purchasing seed from a big box store may not be the most ideal choice here.
I purchased my fall tomato seeds online from a company called Tomato Fest. Tomato Fest is run by a married couple who have been in the tomato business for almost 30 years. You can search their seed inventory using the characteristics listed above. Some varieties I have found that fit some or all of the criteria include:
I highly you suggest you browse this awesome website full of tomatoes and choose some varieties that seem fun and interesting to you. Just keep in mind some of the attributes and characteristics outlined in this post when making your selections. Good luck with your fall tomatoes.
Written by Corey Wahl
Corey Wahl - director of farm operations at Ronin Farm - Bryan, TX.