Friday, January 18, 2008

Some Thoughts on Tomatoes

I love tomatoes. I love to eat them and I love to grow them. One of the great deprivations a person experiences living in a large city is the lack of home grown tomatoes. Sure there are organic supermarkets like Fresh Market and Whole Paycheck that try to provide good tomatoes. But nothing, I mean no thing, can compare to the taste explosion you get from walking out into the backyard and carefully selecting a little red globe of goodness. Taking it to the kitchen and slicing it to just the right thickness, placing it on a piece of bread and slathering on a cool spoonful of Duke's mayo... Best to take a moment at this point and dust it with a dash of pepper from the mill. Why does this taste better? Well, it's like this, you can actually taste the heat of the sun when you do it that way. The tomato is still warm and contrasts nicely with the cool taste of mayo.

In 2005 my wife Sarah and I rented a three bedroom house in Lexington. The backyard was perfect for tomatoes. Not only was the backyard a good place to grow them, but there was also a screened in porch just off the kitchen that was a fantastic place to eat them. I couldn't wait to get started. I spent the tail end of that winter dreaming of fried green tomatoes and big meaty Betterboys dripping down the the side of a grilled burger.

There really is a lot to consider with the growing of tomatoes. You can't just go at it half assed. You gotta do your homework. Prepare the soil and prepare yourself. There are no end of things that can go wrong. Fungus, insects, drought and worst of all, squirrels. Dreadful little tomato thieving bastards. If that location had one Achilles' heel it was the squirrels. Surrounding the property were a number of large trees that over the years had become home to a great many agile rodents. I knew they would be trouble. What to do? Fight them with conventional weapons? Risky...could take years, outcome uncertain. Maybe grow more plants than I need...Allow the squirrels the surplus? The notion smacked of appeasement. I don't negotiate with squirrels.

The solution proved to be containment. I chose to secure a perimeter around my precious plants. The structures were built of wood and chicken wire and proved completely effective. Not one tomato fell victim. I prevailed. In my zeal I also became a subject of ridicule for family and friends who felt I had gone too far. They mocked what they did not understand. Of course, even though they made sport of my efforts, they all had no problem eating those tomatoes at harvest.

Knowing that few people will believe the kind of success I had with my 2006 crop I've posted photos on this blog to back my claims. Unlike Bigfoot, or reported sightings of U.F.O.'s the outrageous tomato harvest of 2006 is well documented. Using a method of gardening known as "French Intensive" I was able to grow plants that reached heights of over eleven feet and yielded a bumper crop measured in tens of bushels. That ain't bad for a patch of dirt measuring no more than eight feet by eight feet.

If I had to point out one thing that will make the difference in home grown tomatoes I would say it's soil. That sweet, black, loamy stuff is the biological high octane that jump starts your crop. Getting it to the place you want it doesn't just happen overnight. At the minimum you need a year. I believe you have to start working the soil a full year before the plants go in the ground. Compost is key. A good pile of compost is where I begin. I build a wood box container about a foot above the surface of the surrounding ground and I begin to fill it with scraps from the kitchen table as well as old leaves and clippings from the yard. Start this in the fall of the year so that by the late spring of the next year the stuff has had plenty of time to rot.

By building the box structure and keeping the area where the plants are growing higher than the surrounding area you allow for plenty of drainage. Tomato plants love plenty of water but they like it to pass over the root mass on the way to somewhere else. With the plants in the box garden a foot above the surrounding ground you can water them several times a day without the fear of over watering them. This is great on those really sunny dry days of mid summer. If the plants get plenty of sun as well as water... Well, get ready for lots of tomatoes.

There is a final trick to growing good tomatoes that few people are aware of but really makes for a good crop. When you put in the tomato sets go out approximately six inches from the base of the plant and dig down about five inches. In this hole place an egg. Don't break the egg, just gently cover it over with dirt. Over the course of the next several weeks the egg will rot and feed the plant with calcium and other much needed nutrients. The first time I tied this I suspected it was some sort of wives' tale and didn't really do much for the tomatoes. Out of curiosity, at the end of the season when I dug up the plants to discard them I found that considerable root mass had formed around the area where the egg had been.

As a control for this experiment I put out three plants that year very close to the ones that are photographed and written about. They grew under almost exactly the same conditions but only produced about half the fruit. The only difference, the egg. I'm now a believer. As an added bonus I would recommend throwing a bag or two of Miracle Grow soil on top of the compost. I've found their mix to be great and this also helps speed things along.

In the pictures you can see that the 2006 crop was an incredible success. Even the cages proved to keep the squirrels at bay as I had hoped. The one thing that I did not count on was the plants growing bigger than the cages. In the end. I had to cut the tops out to allow the plants room to climb higher. After I did this of course the squirrels managed to come in over the wire. They wreaked havoc. The thing that was most depressing was they way they would take just a single bite out of one the best pieces of fruit leaving it there to rot. They are the animal kingdom's answer to the Viet Cong. The horror...the horror.

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