Ah, the calm before the storm. It is smack in-between Christmas and New Year Day. Music is playing, some coffee cakes are baking in the oven. Oddly, it is in the mid-70s in Raleigh NC – a few very confused plants are blooming (a weigela, an azalea, and a spirea). Below are some still-growing tomatoes with the spirea in the background, living green Salvia Guaranitica, and dead brown leaves...quite a juxtaposition!
This is a perfect time for reflection and planning, because the 2016 gardening season is peeking around the corner. Seed catalogs are arriving. I am sure that all of us are really missing freshly picked tomatoes. Don’t despair – we will all soon be busy, and the work of planning and seeding, transplanting and planting, and the regular gardening tasks of maintenance will lead quickly to the summer harvest.
In the spirit of the annual custom of making New Year resolutions, here is a brief list of 5 ideas for your 2016 tomato growing efforts.
1. Try Some New Varieties
It is human nature to return to those things that we’ve grown attached to. Whether it is a favorite food item, article of clothing or piece of music, there is great comfort in familiarity.
When it comes to tomatoes, we are fortunate to garden at a time when the choices are truly endless. Be it maturity dates, sizes, shapes, colors, flavor characteristics or plant habits, there is really no reason to NOT add some variety to your plantings.
If you are a fan of hybrid tomatoes, consider adding in a few heirloom types. 'Big Beef' is a really good tomato, as is 'Better Boy,' 'Lemon Boy,' and any number of other tasty, productive hybrid varieties. Think of trying Andrew Rahart’s 'Jumbo Red' or Aker’s 'West Virginia' for that old-fashioned, red beefsteak type. Hugh’s or Lillian’s 'Yellow Heirloom' are spectacular bright yellow varieties. I’ve not found an exact flavor substitute for the wildly popular orange hybrid cherry tomato 'Sun Gold,' but 'Lemon Drop' and 'Egg Yolk' are right up there in addictive flavor and insane productivity.
2. Give Your Plants More Room
It is so hard to abide by the planting distance guidelines when tiny seedlings, or seeds, leave so much space seemingly unused in the garden. We are all so anxious to fill up our baskets with overflowing crops and wish therefore to maximize our garden’s productivity.
Overcrowding can lead to some serious issues, particularly for tomatoes. Health is far easier to maintain when there is good air circulation and sun exposure completely around each plant. Many tomato foliage issues arise from fungal spores that blow or splash onto foliage. Air and sun helps dry the foliage more quickly, preventing or slowing the ability of the spores to take hold.
3. Grow Some of Your Plants a Different Way
If you’ve always planted your tomatoes in garden soil but are experiencing disease or yield issues, consider container or straw bale gardening – at least on a small scale, at first. Often, especially if a garden size prevents good crop rotation, diseases build up in soil that reduce the success of the tomato crop each year. Sometimes it is the effect of trees growing taller, limiting sunshine.
Any type of tomato can be grown in a container or bale, as long as you size and space them appropriately. Indeterminate varieties will do best with a minimum 10 gallon container capacity. Dwarf or determinate varieties will be just fine in a 5 gallon pot. If using straw bales, limit your planting density to two plants per bale, no matter which type of tomato you choose. Often, the best sun exposure on your property is on a location not suitable for a traditional in ground or raised bed garden. Considering containers or bales simply allows you to bring the tomatoes to the best sun location in your yard.
Of course, the reverse is true as well. If containers or bales are too costly (due to materials or watering needs) or simply extra work, and you have a nice spot of land where you can dig a garden that will have adequate sun exposure, grow them in the ground. You may appreciate a lower maintenance crop – the ground holds nutrients and water more effectively than containers or bales, meaning less frequent watering and feeding.
If you typically stake tomatoes, try using cages. Consider how you prune as well. Staking requires quite a bit of work, but creating and storing cages leads to other considerations. Caging eliminates the need to prune, however. Like most things related to gardening, it is all about the trade-offs.
4. Spend More Time “Reading Your Plants”
I find little in life more enjoyable than my daily walk through my garden. Truth be told, it is usually more than once a day. There is much to learn from watching your plants grow. Aside from the fascinating types of observations – relative foliage shape and color and flower form on each particular variety, growth habit, numbers of flowers per cluster, and so many more – the plants have much to relate regarding their well-being, or challenges.
Tomato plants are speaking to you through their leaf shape. Is it supposed to be what it appears to be? The plants tell you about their health through foliage color. Yellow or brown or black spots or splotches on leaves or stems always mean bad news. Wilting plants on a hot sunny day are like wilting people – they are thirsty. If the wilt doesn’t go away after watering, it means something else. And if the wilting is accompanied by any color other than green, you got it – trouble.
Curling tomato foliage could mean disease, but it could also mean insect damage. Get up close and personal with the leaves – turn them over and look for small insects – aphids, or perhaps whitefly. Missing parts of plants indicate a hungry critter, and if it is a tomato hornworm, you often have to spend a bit of time searching for it.
As you read your plants, enjoy the fresh air, listen to the music of nature – crickets, birds, tree frogs. My wife loves yoga as a way of relaxing, and we both like kayaking. But for me, a solitary few hours among my tomato plants is both therapy and education, often leading to future success.
5. Put on Your "Inner Scientist" Hat and Devise a Project
I am often asked questions about the impact or benefit of various nutrients and additives, planting times, and cultural choices such as pruning. Use of a solution of powdered milk as a spray to ward off fungal diseases is just one tip I often hear; another is application of Epsom salt solutions for improved plant health. Then there is winter sowing, or planting by the phases of the moon, or various pruning techniques (removal of various numbers of suckers or side shoots) and the effect on yield, plant health, fruit size, and flavor.
If you think of your garden as a big laboratory, and are a person who is not only curious, but likes the answers to questions, please consider picking out an idea and treating it as an experiment or project. Last year I had two projects going; growing all of our Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project releases growing in straw bales, and carrying out some new crosses that will lead to additional dwarf varieties.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to try to vary only one factor so that you can clearly see the impact of your idea or test. If you want to explore the effect of Epsom salts on tomato health, grow the same variety in the same area of the garden, starting with plants of the same age. The only thing that you should do differently to one of the plants is apply a solution of Epsom salts. Feeding, watering, pruning, staking – everything else should be the same. Take good notes, and at the end of the season, you will have the beginning of an answer – a tangible difference or improvement, perhaps. If it looks like something of great promise, repeat it the following year to confirm the result.
Another interesting project would be to grow two indeterminate varieties exactly the same way, in the same area, but prune one to a single center stem, and let the other plant develop a number of fruiting branches. At the end of the season, compare the size and number of tomatoes, and the flavor.
These types of little mini projects help to cut through the vast amount of gardening folklore – techniques handed down from year to year, but often without evidence to back up their real value. If you pick out a few nagging questions that you’ve been dying to answer, turn them into a little project. You will find that your love of gardening only increases, that your desire to jump out of bed to “see what’s happening out there” only gets more intense.
Oh – and don’t forget to share your results. Gardeners are wonderful sharers – of seeds, plants, tomatoes, and information. Whatever you learn from your project will be of great value to others.
Happy New Year. I look forward to sharing my tomato journey with you in 2016.
Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for 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. He 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 Craig's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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