I know it is January. Is it too early to be dreaming of hot, red, vine-ripened tomatoes? Those juicy red orbs that encapsulate the summer sun and translate it into a fresh and juicy, natural food that is so versatile that it can be eaten immediately or used with many other foods to create wonderful entrees. Ahh, Tomatoes; no, it's not too early! Especially since I have a hoophouse to grow in this spring!
I am busy preparing my hoophouse garden for tomato planting, and buying seeds to start seedlings that will be planted by early March. This will be my first spring with the new hoophouse and I am anxious and curious to see how the experience will go! March can still be a cold time for us here in Zone 6, where we can get killing frost into mid-May. I have found that the hoophouse does not retain heat too well, especially if it has been a cloudy day. When night-time temps get below 25 degrees, the hoophouse freezes, which has not been an issue with the greens (collards, kale and spinach). They are limp in the morning, but perk up as soon as the sun warms up the interior of the house. One great advantage of the hoophouse is that plants are protected from bitter winds. Another great thing is that the ground seems to stay fairly warm, even with the dipping air temperatures. I am hoping that using a combination of cold protection practices will enable March-planted tomato seedlings to not only survive, but grow and be ready to produce vine-ripened fruit by the end of May (well, at least by June).
Tomato plants are wonderfully adaptive. Trench planting is a great way to make the plant adapt its stem into extra root. There are many ways to do this successfully, but my strategy is to use this technique to my advantage. A fellow farmers market friend, Chris, suggested that if I trench the tomato plants without entirely backfilling with dirt, keeping them low in the ground might offer freeze protection. As the days warm I can continue filling the trench with dirt while promoting extra root growth.
I am also going to cover with a white cover cloth. This allows for sun to enter in, and provides a fairly good protection from the cold air. I may also place a few black plastic barrels filled with water near the plants. On sunny days, these barrels will absorb heat that will then be radiated back out during the night. Exactly how much heat the barrels would dissipate and how much advantage that brings is questionable. I can also use a space heater for very cold nights that would devastate my seedlings. Electric and gas heating is going to be used sparingly, though, as I do not know how much it will cost yet. So, another garden experiment ensues!
Tomato variety is also important when hoping for early tomatoes. The earliest, most prolific variety is Bush Early Girl. I am going to plant some of these because they should offer the quickest, earliest crop. The disadvantage to early girls is that they are small, baseball sized. Larger, soft-ball sized tomatoes are better sellers at the market, though. So, when looking for early slicing sized tomatoes I am hoping a good choice is Celebrity and Early Goliath. We have grown Celebrity for years. It is a good, old hybrid and has great flavor and texture. Another one that I have never tried, but have ordered seed for, isPolbig. I have searched for varieties that have shown potential in being grown in the hoophouse environment. There is a tomato called Conestoga that is a hybrid version of an heirloom that has resistence to plagues that the heirloom would not be. I may try this variety at some point and Merced (another variety praised for good production in the hoophouse), if their seeds become more widely available.
Honestly, having the first tomatoes at the market has never been a big motivation. With the addition of the hoophouse last year, though, having early summer crops has become a goal. I will update my blog with the progress of this years tomato harvest in the hoophouse. Please post comments, suggestions or experience that you have from tomato growing or hoophouse growing.