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Winter for the Tomato Grower, Part 2: Planning and Creating the Foundation for Success

I don't know about you, but my wife, Susan, and I are really missing fresh tomatoes right about now. Today (December 12) in Raleigh, N.C., it is approaching 70 degrees. There are still tomato plants growing in our driveway, happily thriving in 5-gallon grow bags.

December Driveway Tomatoes!

The forecast tells me that the end is very near, but it has been really exciting to still see my favorite crop occupying the nice, sunny spot near our back door. Fall/early winter tomato growing has its own issues, as I am discovering, but that is a topic for a future blog.

About those questions that I posed last month...I wanted to add a bit of rationale to the first half dozen. (The other six questions take things at a more detailed level, but not all gardeners will feel the need to get to such a level of detail). This will hopefully clarify the connection between the questions, good garden planning and increasing the chance for the garden meeting needs and expectations. The time is now - because I am sure that our mailboxes are starting to fill up with seed catalogs!

The catalogs arrive!

Let’s look back some of the questions that I posed in Part 1.

1. What were my expectations – my main objectives - going in to the season?

Let’s start at a really general level. As I planned my 2015 tomato garden, I had a few goals in mind. (A) I wanted to combine Straw Bale gardening with a test of all of the new varieties that we created in our Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project. (B) We love cherry tomatoes, so decided to grow them in large containers on our deck. (C) For my indeterminate (tall growing) tomatoes, I had a mix of varieties that I wanted to grow, including some of the most interesting and best flavored for eating, using as partners in new crosses with the Dwarf varieties, and to fulfill a need for some freshly saved seed.

2. What type of garden was I hoping to plant – experimental, for fresh eating, preserving, seed saving, or other parameters?

As you can see from the plans that I outlined in point 1 above, my garden was pretty complex and challenging, with a desire to fulfill quite a few objectives. Since I treat my gardens as big research projects, and my garden as my laboratory, testing varieties and seed saving and tomato breeding always take precedence over such aspects as maximum yield or largest fruit.

3. How well did my tomato crop meet my objectives (for yield or flavor, for example)?

Thinking back – as well as looking at pictures and records that I maintained – it was a really successful garden. There were some surprises (there are always surprises with gardening!). We had plenty of tomatoes to eat, I carried out over 20 new crosses, the Dwarf varieties received a rigorous test, and Straw Bale growing was a really positive experience overall, with a few caveats to learn from.

4. What were the things I particularly found successful (including techniques, maturity times, layout)?

I incorporated several significant changes into my tomato growing in 2015. (A) Increased Spacing (B) Increased feeding schedule (C) more rigorous pruning of indeterminate varieties, including topping at a pre-determined height to help control toppling, and (D) use of large containers of spent potting mix to serve as anchors for the stakes used to support the indeterminate plants.

Because of these four incorporated techniques, I had healthier plants because the increased separation led to more air circulation and sun exposure (and aided as well by growth in straw bales, which minimized the possibility of root zone or splash-related spread of diseases). Weekly feeding meant healthier plants and higher yields. More diligent pruning and the new idea for plant support meant far less topping of plants and tangled vines.

5. What general issues arose, such as disease, insects, critters, and poor fruit set?

In general, there was little to quibble with in the 2015 garden. A bit of early blight and fusarium wilt seems inevitable, but troubled plants were at a minimum when compared to recent gardens. Insect and critter damage was essentially nonexistent. Fruit set was uniformly excellent, despite some incredible early heat. The main issue experienced was a few varieties that did not grow as expected. Anyone who grows lots of tomatoes and focuses on heirlooms/open pollinated varieties realizes that this is inevitable.

6. What was the weather like during the season – temperature trends, amount and incidence of rainfall or lack thereof, vs what is typically experienced?

It was hot! For a three week stretch in June the daytime temperature ranged between 95 and 100 degrees F. Rainfall did not seem out of the ordinary, and I was fortunate to have the time to ensure all of my bale and container grown plants were adequately hydrated.

Answering the questions was a lot of fun, and very instructive. It allowed me to reminisce about each phase of the growing season. It allowed me to reflect on the sufficiency of our harvest, and appropriateness of the techniques that I used. It helped to fill a part of the year that, for a gardener, can be a bit frustrating, as we read catalogs and get itchy to plant.

The next step is to use the information generated to decide on what the 2016 garden will entail. Which varieties did great and will make a return; which will be relegated to less frequent growing – or perhaps lose their spot in your garden permanently? Was the harvest sufficient to meet your needs, or will you plant more next year? For those that had real disasters – disease, yield, critters – what will you do differently next year to mitigate the problem and bring joy back to your tomato growing efforts?  This is the time to create that plan.

I’d love for you to give this all a try, and share your responses to the questions.

In my next blog post, I will review some of the basics of tomato variety selection. We are gardening in a very exciting time – the selection of great tomatoes has never been more broad and deep. With such a selection, choosing can be a daunting task. Let’s see what I can do to help.

Summer 2015 Harvest

Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for his book Epic Tomatoes, setting upcoming tomato workshop events, updating his website and blog, devising a totally new, all-heirloom weekly podcast, shooting a tomato know-how video series and pondering topics for future books. Craig is co-leading the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project to put 36 new dwarf-growing, open-pollinated tomatoes in the hands of various small seed companies. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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