Jacksonville Tomato Fest

Jacksonville Tomato Fest

For decades, America’s favorite garden vegetable has been celebrated in Cherokee County. Jacksonville, Texas, was touted as the “Tomato Capitol of the World” during the height of railroad-shipping days from about 1914 to the 1950s, and many local families worked picking, packing and loading tomatoes. Growing tomatoes remains a family business in Cherokee County, and the local producers have strong kindred connections.

For the last 39 years, Jacksonville has been drawing folks together for the annual Tomato Fest in June. Contests (including the best homegrown tomato, salsa, tomato peeling, tomato eating and more) bring thousands of visitors from far and wide to see, and taste, what the hubbub is all about.

“The Best Homegrown Tomato” contest during Tomato Fest is a personal pleasure for me. It makes me happy to see local Cherokee County gardeners sharing the results of their labor of love. I enjoy the smiles they share when they bring in their ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’, ‘Big Zak’ and ‘Red Pear’ to be weighed to compete for biggest homegrown tomato. And I also enjoy the conversations we have over the beautiful new varieties they are growing. The contest can also be a great showcase for heirloom varieties, especially in the “Best Tasting” category, but folks are frequently surprised by how often ‘Celebrity’ tomatoes win out over other varieties for best taste. That variety is a popular overall producer for some very yummy reasons. Even the cat-faced and odd fellows have a chance to show off in the “Most Unusual” category.

Have you ever wondered about the secret to growing your own prize-winning tomatoes? Basically, it comes down to healthy living: nutrients, sunshine and the right amount of water for your soil conditions.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and have a sweet-spot pH of 6 to 6.5. So, if you are growing in-ground, your best bet is to get your soil tested and then fertilize and adjust the pH accordingly. If you are growing them in containers or a raised bed, the recommendation for nutrients would be a 1:1 ratio of soil to compost, adding a dilute fertilizer solution when you plant or mixing in a balanced fertilizer prior to planting.

Once you see tiny fruit growing, that is the perfect time to add additional fertilizer, which is generally called side dressing. You can use a water-soluble or slow-release fertilizer directly on and around the plant, but if you are adding a granular fertilizer, it will need to be added in a trench four-to-six inches from the root zone so that it doesn’t burn the roots but still gives the plant the goodies it needs.

Calcium is critical to healthy growth just as much as the big three (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). Calcium, or the lack of it, is the source of that heartbreaker called blossom-end rot. Lack of calcium (either from not being present in the soil or from lack of water to move the calcium through the plant) when the fruit is first developing causes a failure when the cell walls are forming later in the growth of the fruit. Tomatoes will not recover from blossom-end rot, so when you find it, it is always better to just remove that fruit and immediately apply a calcium source (usually a foliar spray), so any subsequent tomatoes have the nutrients they need.

Consistent watering is the foundation of tomato vitality. How often you need to water will depend on your soil texture and how fast it dries out, but your goal is a deep-soaking irrigation. Aim for soaking 6-to-10 inches deep at each watering. Sandy soils will need more frequent watering, though, because the water drains away from the roots faster. Apply that water to the soil and not the leaves whenever possible. Water sitting on the leaves is a recipe for disease disaster. Any foliar watering or sprays should be done in the morning so that the moisture dries on the foliage in a timely manner. Be mindful of over-watering, though, and make sure your plants have good drainage. Tomatoes do not like having wet feet and are prone to root rots and other diseases in those situations.

Placement is key, as well. Tomatoes are sun-lovers and will thrive and fruit best with eight hours of full sun. Also, they need some space. Your transplants should be planted 18-to-24 inches apart to allow for good airflow and less nutrient competition. The closer you plant them, the more maintenance they will require to prevent and treat pest and disease problems. Staking them helps, too. Give them something to lean on as they grow. Traditional tomato cages, individual stakes or cattle panels will all work well. Be sure that whatever you use to attach the stems to the support system is soft, so it won’t damage the stems due to wind and growth.

Timing can also play a significant role. Too early in the season and they freeze, too late in the season and they produce minimal fruit because the nights get too hot. Tomatoes produce best when nighttime temperatures are between 52 and 72 degrees because outside of that temperature range the pollen isn’t generally viable. Planting as early as possible works well, if you have some frost protection. Cold temperatures cause growth damage called cat-facing, and freezing temps are fatal. The best plan is to find out when your average last freeze date is (your local Extension office will know) and plan accordingly, with some temperature protection “just in case.”

Okay, so now what? Well, if you are looking to grow the largest tomatoes, consider pruning. Pruning the suckers from the leaf axils on indeterminate tomatoes (tomatoes whose vines continuously grow) allows energy to be focused on the developing fruit rather than on growing longer vines and additional flowers. Reducing the number of fruits developing on the vine will increase the size of remaining fruit.

Now that you have them growing, what about showing them off? What is the key to creating a perfect plate of three tomatoes? Uniformity! Those three tomatoes need to be as similar as possible in size, shape and ripeness. Having a greater number of tomato plants usually means more tomatoes to choose from, which makes selecting those three tomatoes a bit easier.

June 2024 will be the 40th Annual Tomato Fest, so if you have never attended (and even if you have) this will definitely be the year to plan on checking it out. New winners, new flavors and a fresh new batch of fried green tomatoes. You can find all these goodies and more on the second Saturday in June in downtown Jacksonville.

By Kim Benton
Extension Agent, Cherokee County