It’s time to dream about nutrient-dense, old-time sweet-tart, juicy tomatoes in my 2018 vegetable garden.
Garden tomatoes in 2017 were a disappointment. They all tasted good, but the vines were spindly, and the fruits were sparse. In 2016 I froze more than 20 large Mason jars of tomato juice and sauce. See the post A short history of the 2016 tomato crop for details. In 2017, I had enough spare tomatoes for 2 jars of sauce. That hurts.
Thanks to Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes, I have enough delicious homemade salsa in the freezer, but nothing else tomato-wise. It’s time for a new plan. My strategizing for 2018 includes ideas about crop rotation, soil fertility, and tomato varieties.
I’ve followed a 3-year crop rotation for several years in the vegetable garden. As can be seen under the ice and snow in the photo above, taken on February 9, 2018, my vegetable garden largely consists of 3 rows of raised beds separated by walkways. Each year, I planted tomatoes in a different row, fitting the other vegetables into rotations in the 2 remaining rows. This strategy had its drawbacks. The middle row is only 18″ wide. Indeterminate tomato plants in the middle row sprawled into the walkways, making access difficult. The row to the left in the photo above is closest to the raspberry bushes. I think this is detrimental to tomatoes, although I haven’t found any expert opinions to back up this premise.
The row on the right in the photo above seems to produce the happiest tomato plants. It was from this row that I got the 20 large jars of tomato juice/sauce. If only I could just forget rotation for the tomatoes and plant them year after year in the righthand row. Maybe I can.
For several years, we have noticed a large garden in our community with tomatoes in the same place year after year. How do they do that, we wondered. Then, on rereading some of my favorite garden texts, I found these endorsements for a non-rotational tomato plan. First, Louise Riotte, in Carrots Love Tomatoes, offers the following tidbit that pleases me no end:
Unlike most other vegetables, tomatoes prefer to grow in the same place year after year.
So unless you have disease problems, Riotte recommends planting tomatoes in the same place, plus using compost or decomposed manure to prepare beds, then mulching them, watering them from below and deeply, and never using tobacco products around them. Most of Riotte’s advice is standard procedure for organic growers. Planting in the same place is unusual and welcome news to me.
Then, I noticed the following paragraph about tomato rotation in Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, which evidently had not registered with me in previous readings of this book. Coleman writes:
In some cases, no rotation at all is recommended. Many old-time growers insist that tomatoes do best if planted every year in the same spot. They even recommend fertilizing them with compost made from the decayed remains of their predecessors. I once grew tomatoes that way for eight years in a greenhouse. In truth, they were excellent, and they got better every year. I do not grow field tomatoes that way now and cannot really defend my decision except to say that it is more convenient when they are part of the rotation. It could be that I am just uncomfortable about breaking the rules I have found to work so well with other crops. It could also be that I am unnecessarily limiting my options. I suggest that you try growing tomatoes (or any crop, for that matter) without rotation. Nothing is as stifling to success in agriculture as inflexible adherence to someone else’s rules. . . .
Well now, that is certainly encouragement to experiment with tomato rotation from 2 farmers I admire most. In truth, 2018 won’t really be an experiment since the righthand row of raised beds hasn’t been used for tomatoes since 2016. The experiment will truly begin in 2019. Also, giving up the rotation is only for the tomatoes. As I wrote in the post, A new garden plan for Fortex green pole beans, I think crop rotation is useful for keeping pole beans healthy. I’ve also had good results with rotating alliums such as garlic and onions into different rows each year. So, I talking about tomatoes only–at least for now.
My next tomato concern is soil fertility. It’s not that I didn’t fertilizer in 2017. I did. But maybe not wisely. I need to know what the soil needs to raise nutrient-dense tomatoes, and when it needs it. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog recommends abundant soil phosphorus for early high yields. Too much nitrogen will result in too much foliage at the expense of fruit, as well as in soft fruits with susceptibility to rot. Abundant soil calcium and an even supply of soil moisture will prevent blossom end rot. Watering in transplants with a high-phosphate fertilizer solution is recommended by Johnny’s as well.
In 2017, I used Neptune’s Harvest fish fertilizer 2-4-1 twice a month through the tomato season. I watered it into the soil around the tomato plants. No only was this expensive, it didn’t give the results I hoped for. Obviously, fish fertilizer is good stuff. I just didn’t use it effectively. During soil preparation in May of 2017, I added rock phosphate and limestone to the compost, but I was missing composted manure. Unfortunately, my local source of composted sheep manure with bedding straw, affectionately known locally as ewe-poo, had mechanical problems with their composting equipment and shut down production for awhile. Looking back on the difference between 2016 and 2017 vegetable harvests, I wonder if that might have been the biggest problem in 2017. I’m happy to say that my compost for this spring has 4 40-lb. bags of ewe-poo incorporated into it. I’m also planning to do soil tests this spring, so I will have a better idea of what the soil needs rather than adding stuff helter-skelter. In The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food, Steve Solomon warns that balancing nutrients in the soil is as important as supplying an abundance of them. He supplies rather daunting worksheets for figuring out what is lacking and why. The first step is a soil test, so that’s my starting point this spring.
Finally, I’m rethinking tomato varieties, hoping to choose the best for my needs and reduce the number of varieties to better concentrate on the needs of those few I have.
First, I’m sticking with Ramapo F1 hybrid for slicing tomatoes and adding Moreton F1 hybrid in hopes of an earlier slicer. I’m not proud of the vines pictured above, but the Ramapo fruits were good. I think they can be better. Both Ramapo and Moreton are Jersey Tomatoes that the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) at Rutgers has reintroduced in recent years. They were the tomatoes of choice for New Jersey canneries as well as gardeners in the 1960s and ’70s. They have a memorable sweet-tart taste that got lost when the canneries chose firmer varieties that shipped better and had a longer shelf life. I remember that wonderful taste from back then. Whenever we visited out-of-state friends, we were always asked to bring along some tomatoes from New Jersey farmers’ markets. I just didn’t realize what I was missing until I started reading about the Ramapo tomato, and more recently, the Moreton, which is an old-time variety that produces earlier in the season. Both are F1 hybrids, but are often found listed with heirlooms because of their taste, their semi-determinant growth habit, and their illustrious history. I ordered seeds for both from Rutgers. Much more information is available at the Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato website.
In addition to the Jersey Tomatoes, I chose an heirloom slicer, Cherokee Purple, from Johnny’s. Missing from my slicer lineup for the first time in many years is Celebrity F1, a nostalgic choice in past years because my mother always grew Celebrities. Nothing wrong with them, just an issue of garden space mostly.
Plum tomatoes are a necessity. Whatever variety I tried in 2017 is lost to history. I can’t find any record of it. It was not memorable, to say the least. Spindly vines and sparse fruits account for the dearth of tomato sauce in my freezer this winter. For 2018, I decided to go back to Amish Paste from Johnny’s. In September 2015, I wrote a post, Plum tomato mash-up about Amish Paste and Speckled Roman plums cross-pollinating. This bothered me at the time. Now I look at the photos of those luscious lovely plum tomatoes and wonder why I was so upset about a little cross-pollination. Amish Paste is an heirloom from which I’m hoping for many jars of tomato juice and sauce for the freezer next winter, as well as good eating all summer.
Finally, my tomato lineup would be incomplete without Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes from Johnny’s. I worry sometimes that Johnny’s will discontinue them. The catalog blurb warns that they don’t produce so well as modern varieties and that the fruits are soft. However, the flavor is superb. Yes, it is. As for the production issue, I can only say it hasn’t been a problem for me. Every day during tomato season, there’s more cherry tomatoes to be picked, almost more than can be used. As for the soft fruits, it’s true that Matt’s wild cherries won’t sit around unused on the counter for days on end. They are best eaten the day they are picked. But they also don’t have to be cut in half to be edible in salads or on pasta. They burst open almost on their own, either in your mouth as you savor a salad, or as they are gently heated in olive oil for a pasta dish. Their softness is a large measure of their appeal.
So, that’s my tomato strategy for 2018. My decision is made regarding non-rotation of tomatoes. I will try it. My choice of varieties has been made and seeds have been bought. That’s done. Now what’s left is the big challenge. Learning the best way to provide soil fertility that will produce nutrient-dense, juicy, tasty tomatoes. Lots of them. That begins with a soil test this spring.