Tomato time: Annual fiesta celebrates homegrown, heirloom varieties

Kathy Cranage grows several varieties of paste tomatoes, including these Milano plums. (Courtesy of Kathy Cranage)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If just thinking about homegrown tomatoes makes your mouth water, master gardeners recommend coming early to the Ninth Annual Tomato Fiesta.

More than 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes will be available for sale and tasting at the fiesta, which features gardening seminars, cooking demonstrations, live music and kids’ activities from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 23.

Admission is $5 and food will be available for an additional price at the Master Gardener Tomato Cafe. The Tomato Fiesta is at the Albuquerque Garden Center at 10120 Lomas NE, just west of Eubank NE.

Local master gardener Kathy Cranage harvests one or two pounds of tomatoes a week from her 16 plants during late summer and knows about tomato snobbery.

“We use a lot of tomatoes, but I won’t buy them,” she says. “They just don’t taste the same.” She makes sauce and salsa. She freezes and cans them and she and her family eat them fresh.

Sliced with salt is always great. Tucked into a BLT is yummy, especially with her Marizol Gold tomatoes.

But one of her favorites is a fresh Caprese salad with tomato, garden-grown basil and fresh mozzarella: “I like a Tigerella (tomato) for that. It’s about 2 inches across. It’s a little sweet. It’s a beautiful red tomato with a yellow stripe.”

Tomato know-how

Cranage has lived in her Paradise Hills home for 33 years so she knows what works best in her garden. If you’re craving a better supply of homegrown tomatoes, here’s what she recommends.

Tomatoes like consistency, so she mostly grows varieties she knows, like the softball-sized heirloom Cherokee purple and plenty of paste and cherry tomatoes that produce even if weather conditions are not ideal.

But she always tries one or two new varieties. She starts her tomatoes from seed indoors in February to get the heirloom varieties she wants, which are often not available in nurseries as bedding plants.

She takes care to mulch the water-loving tomatoes heavily and waters with soaker hoses or other ground irrigation to avoid splashing soil on the plants. Soil-borne disease, like tomato blight, a fungus, can be spread with splashing water.

She recommends a 10 percent bleach solution in a spray bottle to wipe down garden tools, like clippers, to avoid spreading disease from plant to plant. “I use a spray bottle of bleach solution and paper towels to wipe down my pruners.”

Beware worms

Horned worms will gobble all the leaves of the plant, killing it, and need daily vigilance to keep them off the plants. If their work is obvious, but the hungry caterpillars are hard to find, Cranage recommends going in the garden with a flashlight at night. The light reflects off their stripes and makes them easy to find and pick off the plants.

She uses a shade cloth to cool her tomatoes during the hottest part of the day. Tomato flower pollination occurs usually from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. With Albuquerque’s extreme heat, a shade structure boosts production.

The shade should be open to the east so the plants can get morning sun, but covered on top and to the west to protect from the hot afternoon sun.

Pollination stops or flowers drop without forming tomatoes when daytime temperatures are above 85 to 90 degrees and nights stay above 75 degrees, she says.