It is with apologies to Charles Dickens that I title this post, but I just couldn’t resist. And it is a tale of tomatoes in my garden.
This growing season has been rife with difficulties. It started out well enough, although everyone was very confused by the extremely early spring that we enjoyed. It seemed like everything was about a month ahead of time. This was okay if you were planting seeds out, but if you were planning on procuring seedlings and setting them out, the seedlings simply weren’t available at the time the weather said that they should be. All those growers and computers just “knew” that I should not have any tomatoes to set out until the middle of May. By then, it was too late for them to get their roots firmly established before the horrible weeks of over 100º days that were coupled with NO RAIN set in.
Anyway, I had some seeds to plant, and so I did. Specifically, I have some heirloom seeds of an oxheart type tomato that one of my clients gave me. She also told me how she plants her tomatoes, and last year, with great trepidation, I followed her method and met with good success. So I did it again.
You do not start your seedlings indoors. When it is early spring, you plant your tomato seeds directly into the garden, and water them well. Then you place a nice quart mason jar over them. You do not move the jar. When you feel like you need to water, you just water the bed without moving the jar. Eventually, your seeds will sprout and grow inside the jar.
For some reason, it never gets too hot inside the jar, probably because it isn’t that big of a surface to collect heat. Anyway, if your seedlings outgrow the quart jar, you replace it with a half gallon jar, and by the time they get too big for the half gallon jar, it will be good enough weather for them to survive without protection.
I experimented and discovered that this method also works for peppers.
Considering how long I had to wait for the seedlings I ordered from Cook’s Garden, I won’t be doing that again. I intend to seed directly into the garden hereafter. Goodness knows I have plenty of jars.
Notice also the thick layer of mulch on the tomatoes. That mulch was on all the garden beds. What it is is clean straw, which is the stubble harvested after the winter wheat crop has been combined. We buy it in bales form a local feed store. I use the term “clean” advisedly, since it had plenty of wheat heads in it. This is because not all wheat is the same height, and when it is combined not all of the wheat crop makes it off the field. Seeing as how it wasn’t really clean, there were plenty of wheat sprouts to pull up all spring. But it did NOT have weed seeds, which I believe is what they mean by “clean.”
As things turned out, my tomatoes were doing fairly well considering everything. But they weren’t ripening.
Very frustrating to have such lovely tomatoes that stubbornly remained green. Then the weather turned Saharan on us, and the tomatoes did not like it at all. In order to try to preserve them, I put floating row cover over them and also installed shade cloth on the south side of some of the cages.
And we watered assiduously. For the first time in my life, my water bill was higher than my electric bill. It didn’t really surprise me, I was expecting it to be high. But it was quite impressive. We are so fortunate that our town has very deep wells that produced well all through the drought and heat, so we were not put on water restrictions like some of the communities to our south were.
You might surmise from the way the plants look that they are suffering from the heat and the drought and that is why they are brown and toasted looking. You would be partially correct. The heat and drought made the ants hungry, and the little darlings established aphid colonies everywhere, and also availed themselves of the stem integument as a dietary supplement. This made the tomato vines very unhappy indeed, and also made them susceptible to various soil borne fungi, which is really why the vines are all brown. It is more than likely that what is going on here is Fusarium wilt, which is quite common in this area.
Fusarium wilt is why I never put my spent tomato vines into my compost. I also generally do not put bean plants into it either, as they are generally infected with viruses by the end of the season. Squash vines also don’t go in there since there are always eggs from the squash bugs on the leaves and quite often borers in the stems. All of these items get put on the bonfire. Since I have been doing that, the disease problems in the garden have subsided. There are still disease vectors, of course, and the bugs come from all around. But problems have become minimal.
One pest that I have not been able to get rid of is the squirrels. I realize that there are lots of people who think these animals are cute, with their fuzzy little faces and their flicking tails. They play together so nicely in the spring when the babies emerge from the nest. Just don’t ever forget they are rodents, I view them as rats with furry tails. And they LOVE tomatoes.
Once they have started chewing on a tomato it stops ripening and becomes a haven for the millions of ants to eat off of. And squirrels are not particular about whether the tomato is ripe: they will happily eat the ripe half of a half-ripened tomato, which will then rot on the vine.
Squirrels also love beans, and corn, and squash. I have seen them climb my corn stalks and cling to the plants, gleefully shucking the fresh corn and eating it right off the cob.
Cute Schmute. I’ve heard that squirrel stew is quite tasty, but it will never appear on my dinner table. For, as Jim says, “I don’t eat rat.”
However, all that aside, the tomatoes have done pretty well this year. I have been roasting them regularly and have put away about 15 pints of new roasted sauce to join what was left over from last year.
This is a portrait of last night’s salad.
This was picked about half an hour before we ate it, and contained arugula, kale, endive, mizuna, chard, beet greens, mustard, cucumber, yellow zucchini, carrots, asparagus, beans, broccoli, and a couple of tomatoes the squirrels had missed.
So in spite of the weather challenges and the varmints, I would say we have had a pretty successful garden year. We are thankful.