A short history of the 2016 tomato crop

Each year, I try to learn from my experience and incorporate new ideas and strategies into gardening for the new season.

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Choosing tomato varieties according to your tastes and needs is important. The photo above shows my 2016 choices. From the left, New Girl and Celebrity are the 4 nice round slicers. At the beginning of production, Celebrity tomatoes were much larger than New Girls. Now, not so much. Celebrities are determinate tomato plants, meaning that they keep a nice bush form without sprawling all over. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog says determinate tomatoes ripen within a concentrated time period, whereas the indeterminates, like New Girl, ripen over an extended period. Now, in September, I agree that the Celebrities have tapered off production, while the New Girls are still producing like crazy. I think Celebrities have a better flavor, but New Girls are bountiful, plus being the perfect size for a BLT sandwich.

Moving to the right in the photo above are 2 Marbonne tomatoes. Indeterminate with pronounced ribbing, as can be seen. Johnny’s catalog says Marbonnes are high yielding, but mine weren’t. They are delicious, however.

Next in line are the plums. These are San Marzano plums from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. I’m a pushover for names. I always thought San Marzano was a generic name for plum tomatoes from Italy. When I saw these in the Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog, I just had to try them. The San Marzanos were much larger at the beginning of the season than the ones in the photo above. They didn’t produce as much as I wished, but they do make great sauce.

Finally, in the dish above, are Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes from Johnny’s. Wildly indeterminate with a penchant for springing up volunteer anywhere in the gardens. Like weeds. I love Matt’s wild cherries unconditionally. I read in the catalogs how cherry tomatoes are new and improved, but I say you can’t improve on perfection. And Matt’s wild cherries are perfect. Perfect to eat off the vine for a garden snack, so sweet and tasty. Perfect to grab from the kitchen counter as an indoor snack. Perfect in salads, or perfect literally bursting in a hot pasta dish. Finally, absolutely perfect for salsa.

So, 4 from Johnny’s: Celebrity, New Girl, Marbonne, and Matt’s wild cherry. 1 from Kitchen Garden Seeds: San Marzano. Now to the history of this tomato season.

IMG_1413The best purchase I made this year is a grow light cart. Totally awesome. It changed my gardening life for the better. It can be found in Johnny’s catalog or on their website. I’ll admit that I depend on Johnny’s for many seeds, tools, and supplies. I am rarely disappointed.

Tomato seeds were planted the last week of March in a soilless peat-based mix, as Johnny’s recommends. Last year, I thought this didn’t matter and planted in potting mix. And so, several young seedlings were lost to damping off, where the tender stalks go rotten and the plant collapses. This year, with the soilless mix, not a single problem with damping off. Lesson learned.

The seeded trays were placed under plastic domes and set on heat pads. Tomato seeds germinate slowly in cooler soil, so the heat pads are important. At this point, I used the bottom shelves of the grow light cart–without lights, of course. This was in lieu of using the dining room table, which was standard procedure last year, so right there the grow light cart is making my life as a gardener more enjoyable.

Once the seedlings appeared, the domes were removed and the grow lights turned on. They were transplanted into larger pots, now using potting soil, when the first true leaves appeared. Then transplanted once more into larger pots. By the middle of May, they were spending some time on the deck in the shade getting acclimated to the outdoors.

img_1632By May 28, the tomato plants were in the vegetable garden under covers. This seems late for bed covers, but May was cool, and I was probably overly cautious.

I spent fastidious time preparing the beds. Last year, I had trouble with blossom end rot, which is caused by lack of calcium and/or erratic watering. Trouble with cracking, particularly the Celebrities, which is also caused by erratic watering. And trouble with tomato leaf curl, also caused by erratic watering. Hmm. There seems to be a pattern in that.

After loosening the soil with a broad fork, I mixed rock phosphate and dolomitic limestone, both organic from Espoma and available at most nurseries, into compost, spread the mixture on the beds, and gently incorporated it into the soil with a garden folk. Dolomite lime, which contains both calcium and magnesium, sweetens the soil, as they say, raising the pH. The rock phosphate, which is in granular form, dissolves over time, thus reducing the danger of runoff. It also contains iron. Johnny’s catalog states that abundant soil phosphorus is important for early high yields. OK. Phosphorus and calcium.

I also spent time carefully arranging the irrigation hoses, keeping them farther from the tomato stalks than was the case last year. Later, I used a water meter to determine when to irrigate, and irrigated more thoroughly but not as often as last year. This seemed to work since there was no leaf curl or blossom end rot, and the cracking, even on the Celebrities, was minor.

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Above are the tomato plants on June 16, out from under covers, safely in cages, with a salt hay mulch to keep the weeds down. You may have noticed cilantro plants growing everywhere. They are all volunteer, coming up early in spring when the ground is cool.

img_1716Here is the tomato row on June 21. Growing nicely, but no blooms yet. This year all the tomatoes were put in 1 long row, all the alliums in a 2nd long row, and other crops–lettuce, radishes, carrots, etc.–in a 3rd long row. This makes crop rotation from year to year easier. It also makes irrigation easier. Last year, when garlic was interspersed with tomatoes and peppers, I couldn’t use the irrigation hoses on the tomatoes and peppers in July, just when they needed irrigation the most, because the garlic was drying for harvest and could not be watered at that point. So, putting like kinds together facilitates better irrigation throughout the season. Unfortunately, since peppers and tomato are in the same family so far as crop rotation is concerned, I had to find new places for the pepper plants outside the vegetable garden. More on this dilemma in a later post.

img_1713In the meantime, I am lamenting the end of the 2015 crop–only a few jars of sauce and salsa left in the freezer. It’s hard to wait for new tomato production to get underway. Yes, I freeze jars. No, they don’t break. Just don’t tighten the lids.

It was August before the first Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes turned red, with the other varieties soon following. I can plot and plan for July tomatoes, but it just doesn’t happen here for me. August was hot and humid–good for tomato production. We are in a moderate drought area, so irrigation has been crucial. I don’t have photos of the August bounty. Too busy harvesting and preserving, I guess. Below are some photos taken on September 9.

The Celebrities produced abundantly in August, as they should being determinate. Now they have tapered off with only a few smaller tomatoes still on the vines. The Marbonne and San Marzano vines have pretty much dried up. That leaves the New Girl and Matt’s wild cherry plants, which are still producing mightily.

A major major problem that is not solved is a problem with critters. As soon as a tomato starts to turn red, it will be half eaten on the vine. So annoying, frustrating, and completely maddening. My neighbor thinks squirrels. At first, I suspected chipmunks. Now, we’re pretty sure it’s field mice. Daisy, our yellow lab, goes crazy around the garden fence at night when field mice would be out. We’ve found some holes under the fence.

I was losing probably 3 tomatoes in 10 during August. That’s a sizable loss. So, I started bringing in the tomatoes just as they were turning from green to white–before turning red, in other words. Tomato purists are probably cringing at the notion of counter-ripened tomatoes rather than vine-ripened. I can’t tell the difference. Counter-ripened tomatoes, placed close together in a wire basket where they still get good air flow, ripen better than 1 tomato on a counter by itself. Don’t have proof, but it seems so. At any rate, they are an improvement over half-eaten tomatoes hanging on the vine, good only for the compost pile.

My 2 staples for freezing are marinara sauce and salsa. The marinara sauce recipe follows Lidia’s. Ideally, sauce should be made from plum tomatoes, but I haven’t achieved enough production of plums, ever, to use them exclusively. So, I make sauce from whatever is ripe. If the sauce is thin, I label it juice; if it’s thicker, I label it sauce. Juice gets used in winter soups. Sauce is reserved for pasta dishes. This may sound like sour grapes, but I no longer care for the thick canned sauces. I definitely prefer the fresh taste of my homemade juice/sauce, even after a few months in the freezer. My dream is always to have enough juice/sauce to last through the winter, actually to last until the next August.

Here are the steps for sauce. Really easy.

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Soften garlic in olive oil over low heat in a roomy pot. Add cored and roughly sectioned tomatoes with salt to taste. Simmer. Turn off heat and stir in basil. Cool. Put through food mill to remove tomato skins. Label and freeze.

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So far, as of today, September 17, over 20 large jars of juice/sauce are in the freezer, plus several smaller containers. We’ve eaten tomatoes abundantly, including BLTs for breakfast, fennel/tomato recipes, summer squash/tomato recipes, tacos, lots of pasta dishes, and salads, of course. Also salsa.

After an initial high production period in August, probably enhanced by my soil preparation strategy this year with rock phosphate and lime, the tomato and pepper plants pretty abruptly stopped producing and started turning brown. I’ve always had the notion that tomatoes and peppers should not be fertilized once they are in production. Perhaps this notion originated from thinking of fertilizer as a high-nitrogen source. It is certainly true that nitrogen will encourage foliage, not fruit. I finally decided to fertilize with a fish emulsion from Johnny’s–watering in around the stalks, not spraying the foliage. The renewed production was heartening, convincing me this is the right course of action. So, next year, I plan to water in fish emulsion every 2 weeks without fail. Johnny’s has 3 fish/seaweed fertilizers to choose from. One is listed as 0-4-4. No nitrogen, equal amounts of phosphorus and potassium. Wow.

Of course every year brings its own mix of heat, rain, and sunshine. My plants have been disease-free this year. My irrigation strategies throughout a dry summer were more successful than last year. With increased fertilization and the best choices of tomato varieties for my taste and needs, perhaps I’ll raise enough in 2017 to fill the freezer.

 

 

 

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