Winter for the Tomato Grower, Part 1: Your-End-of-Season Questions Answered

Reader Contribution by Craig Lehoullier
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For much of the country, the tomatoes we are eating now are not the prized specimens plucked from our gardens. They are emerging from our cupboards (dried and canned) or freezers – certainly wonderful enhancements to our cooking endeavors, but not elucidating the summer time level of excitement.

As I type this on November 19, we’ve yet to experience a frost here in Raleigh, N.C. – but it is just around the corner. Just today I harvested lots of sweet and hot peppers and the last few eggplant from the still-thriving, container-bound plants.

For those who start their own seeds, the “busy” part of tomato season can start as early as mid-February, and attention becomes consistent, winding up when the temperatures finally dip below 32 degrees F. In many areas, that means October (or for me this year, late November – quite unusual, to be sure!).

That all adds up to up to nine months of busy. The end of the growing season doesn’t equate to a long, tomato thoughts-free sabbatical, however.

It is important to use the three months of the coming respite wisely. In fact, the way that a gardener spends those three months are the key to ensuring that our gardens provide more and more delight each year.

It is actually prudent to resist the urge to dig into the bounty that will soon stuff our mailboxes; the annual rite of the arrivals of seed catalogs. There is more important work to attend to first, though flipping through the colorful pages and dreaming of next year’s tomatoes is certainly a key part of the three months of relative peace.

I like to carve out some time each week – perhaps each day – and sit down with a journal and pen, and write down the answers to some questions regarding the completed garden. Since I major in tomatoes (and minor in peppers and eggplant, with a smattering of other crops), that is where my focus lies. This process is of course appropriate for any type of garden, any sort of vegetable, flower or herb.

Use of a tablet or laptop works fine, as well as creating an audio record. For me, the act of taking time to write things down in a journal is particularly therapeutic. The method isn’t important; the act of doing it is.

Whether free-form or more structured, documentation of the past growing season provides a record to refer back to in the future. It can help to assess results, separate differing contributing factors, and develop ideas for something different or something better. Any time spent thinking back – any sort of record – will be of great value.

I like to use some pointed questions, some of which are listed below. These aren’t the only questions, and undoubtedly, each gardener will have their own list, based upon their particular garden focus and needs.

First, start with some general questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

If desired, more specific questions can follow.

7. How many plants did I grow? What was the spacing? Break these down into some categories – indeterminate, dwarf, determinate; hybrid and non-hybrid (open-pollinated or heirloom).

8. Which varieties excelled? Which really struggled?

9. Which tomatoes were so good that they are now on the grow-every-year list, and which are now voted off of the island?

10. What was lacking in terms of tomato type, color, flavor, and needs to be considered for next year?

11. Which techniques seemed to work best – such as ways to support tomatoes, types of containers, layout, watering or feeding method, planting time, various plant treatments – and why (speculate)?

12. Which techniques were disappointing?

In Part 2: Planning and Creating the Foundation for Success, I discuss how the above information informs the plan for next year. That is the time to dive in to the arriving seed catalogs, as deciding what to grow is a critical part of planning for the coming season.

The nice part of thinking back and planning ahead is that it keeps the love of great tomatoes – or anything that you love to grow – at the forefront of your gardening thoughts, often a great help as we slog through the darker, colder days of winter, eager to get our seed starting going for the next chapters of our gardening obsessions.

Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for his bookEpic 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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