Posts Tagged tomato growing

Summer Solstice Anticipation*

tomold1

One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?

Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!

Yesterday's harvest.

Yesterday’s harvest.

But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?

All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.

I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.

Embracing Tomatoes

There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control —
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.

tom2

Just yesterday,
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages —
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.

Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways —
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.

tom1

So here I am once again —
embracing tomatoes.
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.

Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.

tom3

Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.

Coming soon, we hope!

Coming soon, we hope!

Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.

* I hope you enjoyed this repeat of a post from 2013.

 

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Tomato Talk

Tomatoes and friends

Tomatoes and friends

I exercised great restraint this year. I only chose 5 tomato varieties to grow from seed, and I only planted two of each kind in my vegetable garden, for a total of 10 plants. Compared to my younger, wilder days, that is a modest tomato planting, trust me.

Because I was being so restrained, I devoted a great deal of thought to my seed choices. I decided I couldn’t live without two varieties that have been consistently wonderful for me. One is a hybrid cherry tomato called Sweet Treats. Search my blog for that variety, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to appreciate my loyalty to this variety, including its resistance to a number of tomato diseases.

First fruits of Sweet Treats.

First fruits of Sweet Treats.

My other repeat choice was Goliath Early Hybrid, a member of the Goliath series of tomato varieties that I’ve found to be both early and wonderful. It is also resistant to just about every tomato disease out there, and it shows in the resiliently vigorous vines that usually top my 8-foot-tall trellis. Thus you can imagine my distress when the company I ordered from — Totally Tomatoes — substituted a completely different tomato without asking me, claiming a crop failure. Although I understand crop failures, Totally Tomatoes infuriated me by sending me a substitute without consulting me. Now on their Web site, they admit what they’re doing — that notice wasn’t up when I ordered. But even now if you search for the variety they substituted, you cannot find a description.

As far as I’m concerned, a company should always ask if substitutes are acceptable. When given that option, I always say no, because I want to decide what my Plan B will be, not some company that knows nothing about me and my garden needs.

The packet of Early Choice tomato seeds I received as an unwanted substitute offered no information about the variety. I have no idea what, if any, disease resistance this variety offers, but I’d bet big money it doesn’t match the disease resistance of the variety I actually ordered. Although my Early Choice plants look fine so far, I have grave misgivings about their staying power, because they have leaves that resemble potatoes (tomatoes are in the same plant family). All of the potato-leaved tomato varieties I know are heirloom types — delicious, but they fail fast, because they have no disease resistance. I want plants I can count on. In my climate, that means plants with disease resistance and flavor. I’ll let you know how this one turns out, but I will also tell you that I plan to never order seeds from this company again. They failed me with grafted tomatoes last year, and they failed me this year by substituting without asking my permission. Two strikes, and they are out. Luckily for me, they are not the only tomato seed company option available.

The other three tomato varieties I chose this year are determinate and new to me. For you tomato newbies, a determinate tomato grows to a set height, ripens all the fruits it has set, and then it’s done. Indeterminate varieties — Sweet Treats and Early Choice for me this year — just keep growing and producing until diseases or frosts kill them, whichever comes first. I chose determinate varieties because growing mostly indeterminants results in a messy, out-of-control trellis every year. I’m hoping that using determinants will give me more good-eating tomatoes with fewer disease issues. Time will tell.

First fruits of either Charger or Tasti-Lee. I can't tell from this photo.

First fruits of either Charger or Tasti-Lee. I can’t tell from this photo.

First up, Tasti-Lee Hybrid. I picked this one because it is supposed to contain 40% more lycopene than other varieties. This antioxidant has proven to be a nutritional powerhouse in a number of studies — and it’s supposed to have “true tomato flavor,” so I’m giving it a try. This one’s a bit of a gamble, because no disease resistance is listed.

The other slicing-type determinant variety I’m trying this year is extremely disease resistant. Charger Hybrid is supposed to be high-yielding with good flavor. It’s also crack-resistant; cracking is an issue when you get a lot of rain after a dry spell — something that happens in my summer gardens most years. The fruits absorb too much water too fast, and their rapid expansion causes them to crack.

I’ve been growing the same paste tomato for years — Viva Italia. But this winter when I was perusing my options, I decided to try a different variety. I don’t remember why, and my choice — La Roma III Hybrid, is actually somewhat less disease-resistant than Viva Italia. It may have been the fruit size. Viva Italia plants produce 3-oz fruits. La Roma III is supposed to produce 5-8-oz fruits. I may have been thinking I can make more tomato sauce faster with larger paste tomato fruits. I can tell you that, so far, the La Roma III plants are extremely vigorous, their growth habit more shrubby than vine-like. And their fruits are growing faster and larger than the other slicer varieties I’m growing.

La Roma III fruits are winning the size contest so far.

La Roma III fruits are winning the size contest so far.

I’m sure I’ve shared my tomato-growing tips in previous years, but to review briefly, I grow my plants from seed in my greenhouse. I usually start about six of each type, then transplant the ones that look most vigorous. Extra good-looking starts are shared with friends. I never have trouble finding good homes for them.

I try to wait until nighttime temperatures are remaining above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, because studies have shown that tomatoes exposed to temperatures lower than that are slightly less productive. This year, I waited as long as I could, but my transplants have definitely experienced a few nights when temperatures dropped into the upper 40s in my garden. They all look great, though.

When I transplant my tomatoes, I dig deep holes, so that the bottom leaf nodes end up buried when I fill in the holes. New roots sprout from the newly buried leaf nodes, providing even more nutrition conduits for the plants. I also add organic fertilizer especially formulated for tomatoes. My soil is wonderful, but this boost seems to generate optimal flowering and fruit set for me.

I’ve tried every tomato support system out there over my decades of tomato growing. For me, a trellis system works best. I can plant on both sides, being sure to space plants so that they aren’t directly opposite each other. Remember to sucker indeterminate plants to foil their attempts at world domination. But don’t sucker determinant plants. Because they don’t grow infinitely tall, all those side shoots are needed to produce a good fruit crop.

Water when rains don’t do it for you, then wait for the green globes to go red. This is the hardest part for me — the waiting. I should be eating cherry tomatoes by the middle of June, maybe even a bit sooner. The others will likely take a week or more longer.

But I should be up to my eyeballs in another fruit before the tomatoes are ready. My enormous blueberry bushes are loaded with a record fruit set. I see blueberry muffins, pies, cakes, pancakes, and jams in my future, along with handfuls of fresh fruit for instant snacking goodness. I’m so ready!

This year, there should be enough blueberries for me and the birds.

This year, there should be enough blueberries for me and the birds.

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After the Deluge

My floodplain living up to its name.

My floodplain living up to its name.

Perhaps you’ve heard? It’s been raining a lot in my area for the past several weeks. Actually, it’s been pouring — veritable waterfalls from the sky cascading in fat droplets the size of marbles. I’ve lived in this part of North Carolina for well over 50 years. It has never rained like this. Not ever.

The local meteorologists back me up on this. They’ve noted record rainfall amounts that triple our “normal” accumulations. Talk about your mixed blessings. The photo above was taken about 9:00 a.m. after a day and night of rain. I’ve lost track of how many inches fell, but it was more than enough to push the creek that forms one of our property boundaries out of its banks — in at least a half dozen spots — and onto our floodplain.

The bird feeder in the foreground is not quite in the flood.

The bird feeder in the foreground is not quite in the flood.

It looks a lot like a raging river, doesn’t it? Muddy water tears by in multiple interweaving currents. But it’s not even the sights you notice when you step outside. The smell assaults you first — mucky, decaying, fungus-filled deep humidity. Then you notice the roar of the water as it leaps over the bank of the creek onto the floodplain, currents scouring paths in the silt, carrying fish, driftwood, and assorted bits of trash deep into the swamp, where the currents finally weaken, morphing into a murky pond.

We lived on muddy lake-front property for about 18 hours.

We lived on muddy lake-front property for about 18 hours.

The floodplain is on the south side of our property. The creek banks on the north side are higher. The only time the creek ever leapt out of its banks there was during Hurricane Fran, when fallen trees forced the water sideways.  This time, the water backed up a bit on the north side:

The creek is the muddy stream in the background.

The creek is the muddy stream in the background.

The water in the foreground covers the trail beside the creek, where we usually walk. The creek breached the bank further downstream, then back-filled itself up the path, right up to our back fence line.

We count ourselves deeply fortunate. Our power was never off for more than a few hours at a time, and we experienced no strong wind gusts during the unrelenting downpour. Our completely saturated ground could not have held the large canopy trees upright, if strong winds had bullied them. We did lose one canopy tree on the floodplain: a large Ash. Its root ball was completely undercut by rushing water.

That's the root ball of the Ash in the middle of the raging current crossing our floodplain.

That’s the root ball of the Ash in the middle of the raging current crossing our floodplain.

Alas, the Ash fell smack onto my Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), which was covered in swelling white flower buds. The Ash sheared off one of the two main branches of the Magnolia. If the mud on the floodplain ever dries up enough for us to walk on, we’ll try to clean up the damage to the Sweet Bay. For now, all we can do is share our sympathies with the maimed Magnolia.

The Ash ripped off one of the trunks of the twin-trunked Sweet Bay Magnolia.

The Ash ripped off one of the trunks of the twin-trunked Sweet Bay Magnolia.

By about 2:00 p.m. on the day I took the above photos, the creek had grudgingly retreated — mostly — back to within its banks, leaving only a few thin streams running across the far southern end of our property beside the swamp. I took a picture to show how it looked.

A yucky, smelly mess.

A yucky, smelly mess.

That’s the creek in back, just barely where it’s supposed to be. The foreground shows one of the spots where it overflowed with rushing current, hence the flattened vegetation and the abundant fresh sand/silt deposits. I gave up walking pretty quickly. I was sinking past my ankles in my boots, and it was very difficult to pull myself out — one foot at a time — to move anywhere. I knew if I fell over, the mud might swallow me whole, so I retreated.

We’ve had two whole days without rain now, maybe three, but the floodplain is still nothing but mud. Too muddy for Wonder Spouse to try to cut up the fallen Ash and trim up the wounded Sweet Bay Magnolia. He was able to cut up the other tree we lost — a dying Black Cherry at the top of our hill. It simply fell over, pulling down some of our deer fencing that encloses the north side of our yard. The root system was weakened by disease and the ground was wetter than it may have ever been before. Eerily, Wonder Spouse had mentioned to me the week before that he wanted to take down that tree anyway, noting its sickliness. I guess the tree wanted to save him the trouble.

The most astonishing thing to me through this crazy wet summer is how the plants and animals have responded. I knew we had been living in varying states of drought for the last 17 or so years, but I hadn’t realized how thirsty the plants were — until I’ve seen how they’ve responded to basically unlimited water. I am almost afraid.

Don’t get me wrong, the trees look great. Instead of the raggedy brown look they’ve been sporting most summers by this time, they look nearly as freshly green as they did when they leafed out in April. In recent years, the Tulip Poplar leaves have been turning yellow and dropping by now, their response to insufficient water. Not this year.

And, good golly, the weeds. Have mercy, the weeds! As I walk from my front door to the vegetable garden at the top of the hill, I try to look straight ahead, focusing only on the path before me. Because if I look anywhere else, I see flowers struggling in a jungle of Japanese Stilt Grass approaching four feet tall, Pokeweed the height of pro basketball players, Poison Ivy plotting to grab me by the ankles and pull me into the overgrown areas full of ripening blackberries and volunteer tree saplings.  The green areas I call lawn are requiring me to mow them (weather permitting) weekly. Usually by now I’m mowing every 6-8 weeks, as the drought forces lawn plants into slow-growing survival mode.

The birds are deliriously happy over the abundant wild blackberry supply. And the bugs. Gnats form sky-blackening clouds. Biting flies slam into my hat-covered head like bullets as I traverse the path to the garden. Mosquitoes bite me through my clothes. Ticks dangle hungrily from every blade and branch. It is a bona fide jungle out there, folks. And I am completely outnumbered.

Despite the plagues of weeds and bugs, my garden is hanging tough. The tomatoes are finally thinking about ripening. They needed sunlight — a commodity in very short supply these last few weeks. Now it’s a race between the moisture-loving fungal diseases and the ripening of the fruits. I’m not sure which will win yet. I’m still picking squashes daily.

Despite the usual bug attacks, the plants are still producing. I think the abundant soil moisture is allowing them to hang tough longer than usual. Ditto for the Fortex pole beans. Never have they produced so abundantly for so long.  The pepper plants grow heavier with fruit daily, but no signs of ripening yet.

Carmen Sweet Italian peppers grow longer each day, but no signs of ripening yet.

Carmen Sweet Italian peppers grow longer each day.

 

In short, for the first time in my gardening life, my vegetables have all the water they could possibly want.

Doing its own jungle imitation, the vegetable garden looked like this on the day I took the flood pictures.

Doing its own jungle imitation, the vegetable garden looked like this on the day I took the flood pictures.

As usual, the Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes are ripening first, but we have eaten a few wonderful Bella Rosas, a couple of seed-grown Early Goliath fruits, and a couple of Viva Italias.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes finally developing ripe fruits.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes finally developing ripe fruits.

Despite competition from out-of-control weeds, the later blooming daylilies have looked lovely. Case in point:

Daylily 'Spanish Forte'

Daylily ‘Spanish Forte’

I can’t close this too-lengthy post without showing you how my Plumleaf Azalea responded to the abundant water. This summer-blooming deciduous azalea is always the Grand Finale to my procession of beautiful azaleas, the effect of its flowers somewhat muted by the presence of leaves. All the others bloom before the leaves emerge in spring.

I took these photos last week early in the morning. We had received another three-quarters of an inch of rain the night before, so it was misty outside.

Heaven-in-a-bush to the hummingbirds.

Heaven-in-a-bush to the hummingbirds.

Here’s a closer view of the flowers. The leaves are a bit damaged, but the flowers more than compensate as far as I’m concerned.

Red flowers contrast with green leaves in a way that always reminds me of Christmas.

Red flowers contrast with green leaves in a way that always reminds me of Christmas.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a fuzzy Monet-esque shot of the Plumleaf Azalea in my landscape. If I had skill with watercolors, I would try to paint this.

Glowing in the misty landscape, Plumleaf Azalea celebrates the abundant moisture.

Glowing in the misty landscape, Plumleaf Azalea celebrates the abundant moisture.

Here’s hoping the meteorologists are over-estimating the amount of rainfall predicted for this weekend.

 

 

 

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Anticipation

tomold1

One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?

Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!

Yesterday's harvest.

Yesterday’s harvest.

But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?

All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.

I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.

Embracing Tomatoes

There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control —
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.

tom2

Just yesterday,
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages —
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.

Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways —
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.

tom1

So here I am once again —
embracing tomatoes.
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.

Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.

tom3

Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.

Coming soon, we hope!

Coming soon, we hope!

Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.

 

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