Wednesday, May 20, 2009

how we grow tomatoes

everyone does things differently, of course, and the garden is no exception. we change our methods slightly from season to season, using what we have learned to improve ourselves. this is how we grow our tomatoes, for what it is worth. i won't say we have had 100% success, mostly due to last year which was a complete failure. i will defend myself from last year, though, because literally everyone here had a tomato crop failure- we had an unspeakably wet (think mass flooding), cool (think late blight) year.

we start with seeds, purchased or saved from the year before depending on variety. we only grow heirlooms, but if we want a new kind we must get the seed from somewhere. this year our new variety is Green Zebra Stripe. We are also growing our favorites- Cherokee Purple, Amish Paste and Omar's Lebanese. other 'little' varieties this year include black cherry,lime green salad, pantano romanesco, yellow pear and german stripe. i mean little as in we aren't growing many of them, just enough to save new seed from them.

we start our seed in the waxing moon or on the full moon in february. when they are up and have true leaves coming, they must be fertilized and we use fish emulsion. when they are big enough to be potted out i put two in each pot with good potting soil and continue with fish emulsion. tomatoes must stay warm at all times and to this end the greenhouse was wonderful this year, an example of how we modify our methods to improve them. every prior year the plants were in the kitchen taking up room!


keep them warm, keep them wet! do not let them want for water.

when it is time to plant, the pairs of plants can be removed as one from the pot and simply broken in two at the roots. tomatoes do not mind this much and mine never even wilt. we plant these as deeply as we can, or laying on their sides in trenches, plucking the lower foliage off. the plant will root all along that buried stem.

we use compost which is the result of cow manure and hay/ straw decomposing for a year. karl is the king of compost and all compost related inquiries must be directed his way. we use a lot of compost.  tomatoes need serious nutrition. this year i believe we used 2 wheelbarrow loads per 32' row of tomatoes of totally finished compost.

the plants need a lot of water. we don't rely on rainfall alone, we use recycled rubber soaker-hoses. these are laid in as soon as we plant tomatoes so that they can be covered in the mulch and be attached to the manifold right away. the mulch is just as important. most of the diseases our tomatoes will see in their lives are in the soil already, no matter where you plant. it is our job to 1) start off with strong plants and keep them strong to fight disease, or to at least produce tomatoes before they succumb and 2) protect the plants from exposure for as long as possible to give them a head start. mulch is absolutely necessary, as soon as you plant or at least before it rains. mulch keeps soil from splashing back on the little plants, transmitting diseases. it also keeps weeds down and moisture in the soil. at the end of the year it becomes organic matter to add back into the soil. what is not to love?

we have used many different staking and trellising systems. plain staking, where you use a single stake, is not very viable for us due to the sheer volume of plants we grow. pounding that many posts is just not user-friendly. trellising, where you use a few stakes and wire or rope between to create a (grape-like) trellis, has failed for us multiple times. when the full weight of fruit-laden plants is on the trellis all it takes is a heavy rainfall to cause total collapse. last year we tried cattle panel trellises, supported by a few metal t-posts, and liked it a lot despite the crop failure. so this year we decided to use a modified version of the same technique. a 16' cattle panel supported on each end and in the middle with driven t-posts. the plants are 'staked' up the panel as if they had individual stakes. it is a lot like trellising, without the catastrophic failure (we hope). you might wonder why we have never bought cages. well, we grow heirloom indeterminate plants that are very very tall. those tiny cages are meant for the patio tomato hybrids of the world. but we did make a few cages this year for our tomatillos and used a few on the yellow pear tomatoes just to see. these are homemade, tall cages made from construction welded wire.

i have tied plants with everything from wool yarn to tee shirt strips. you can buy ties or buy jute twine or even huge rolls of baling twine. when we have natural baling twine i like to re-use that. this year i am using old tee-shirt strips because we have a good collection of old tee-shirts right now. i like to use something natural that will be broken down by the end of the year, because it makes removing the whole system easier. and you should remove the whole system and burn the plants at the end of the year.

we use very few means of insect control and they are all safe. sometimes we use neem, but only in dire straits, because it also kills the good guys. and we use diatomaceous earth in the same way because it, too, is hard on the good guys. but it does a great job on aphids. later in the season you will find me using BT against the hornworms, a 'safe' insecticide that only effects caterpillars. the lacewings and ladybugs take care of most of our problems anymore. our first couple of years here were hard, when we were first establishing a habitat for them.

then , i guess, all we do is side-dress with compost or leaf-feed sometimes with compost tea/ fish emulsion/ etc. keep the soils wet and the plants tied well. and that is how we grow tomatoes.

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