Thursday, June 28, 2007

Focus on Tomatoes

That unsightly mess on the kitchen table would be me re-potting several dozen small tomato plants that have been waiting on our front porch for some attention. I planted a vast number of tomatoes (mainly Brandywine, Purple Cherokee and a yellow cherry variety) in hopes of selling them to benefit the seed fund for the garden at my daughter's charter school here in the District of Columbia.

It looks like I have a good thing going with friends at the 7th Street Garden. Last week they sold my salad mix at one of the local farmer's markets. This week they've invited me back--and I can bring some of my tomato plants as well.

I don't know any vegetable that is more talked about or speculated over than the tomato. I suppose it's the most popular vegetable of all. But people are all over the map when it comes to how to grow tomatoes. Some people like to grow their tomatoes in containers. Others like to buy little cages for their tomatoes. Some gardeners plant a stake in the ground and tie the tomato to that, or they just let it run wild and sprawl all over the garden.

Some tomato growers are very fussy. They prune their tomato plants drastically until all you see is a single stem with big fruits hanging from it.

Everyone seems to succeed or suffer their tomato plants' fortunes together. For instance, last year was almost universally a miserable year for tomatoes in this part of the country. Even people who normally grow great tomato crops had all sorts of problems. It's generally agreed that torrential rains in June doomed last year's tomatoes.

This year I am going to be daring and follow the advice of Charles H. Wilber, who set the Guinness record for tomato growing. In fact, Wilber wrote a book called How to Grow World Record Tomatoes, in which he reveals some of his methods for cultivating tomato plants that grow up to 30 feet high and produce, on average, 342 pounds of fruit

Now, I don't plan to grow tomatoes so tall that you need a 40-foot ladder or a scaffolding system to pick the fruit. But I do intend to take a giant leap forward and make cages for my plants. In the past, I've erected trellises out of PVC plumbing and trained the tomato vines up strings attached vertically. This gives the tomatoes a chance to grow without overwhelming the whole garden. But large, sturdy cages built out of concrete reinforcing mesh give the plants three dimensions to stretch out in.

Wilbur stacks the cages on top of each other as the plants grow, explaining why his plants become skyscrapers. More importantly, he spaces his plants at least five feet apart for good air circulation and to reduce competition among the roots. If anything, I think most gardeners tend to pack tomato plants much too closely together and have little conception of how large a plant a tomato can become if properly tended.

The biggest surprise for me was finding that Wilber grows all his tomatoes naturally. No artificial fertilizers. No pesticides. In fact, he spends quite a bit of ink describing his preferred methods for making and storing compost. Good man.

Well, there I go again, sounding like an expert and I certainly am not where tomatoes are concerned. I have always had a problem with wilt in the past, though last year the plants I let grow wild on the ground seemed to do just fine, as opposed to the ones I trained up the trellises and mulched so carefully with straw.

I'm feeling a bit intimidated by the prospect of dealing with a big roll of concrete reinforcing mesh--or even how to transport it to my garden. But that will have to be part of this year's adventure...


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cookiecrumb said...

Here in California, I got SMACKED last year by a weird heat wave. Killed off the 'maters.
Trying again this year, only in the ground this time instead of containers.
And we're just about ready for construction wire cages. Sigh.
Isn't it fun?

Ed Bruske said...

Yo, CC, I'm about to take the leap into wire cages for my 'maters. Their growing very large already. But I don't think I'm ready for concrete reinforcing mesh. Something a bit easier. Am I allowed?