Sunday, June 5, 2011

A day for tomatoes

The weather turned last Thursday; the last four days have been dry, mild, and partly sunny, good weather to get into the garden. Usually at this time of the year it’s wet but the last few days have dried it out to the point where I’m on a planting binge, getting the warmer weather vegetables into the soil. Today was tomatoes.

The tomatoes go in the garden out by the old store, rotated through, with IRT mulch beneath. For the tomatoes the planting area is about six feet by twenty-eight feet (two sheets of IRT much side by side). During the winter I’d scattered wood ashes over this fenced garden area, which altogether is about forty feet by thirty; during breaks in the weather when it’s been dry I’ve rototilled it—a couple of times—and then this morning I raked the tomato area to get the soil more or less flat and some of the stones away, before laying down the mulch and holding it down with bricks. It would be possible to hold it down with soil but that takes up a bit of room on the mulch and I prefer to use all of it. Once the mulch is held in place, the tomato seedlings (and today some green peppers as well) are planted through the mulch by making holes and digging down with a trowel, then tossing a bit of composted chicken manure into the hole, then dropping in the tomato seedling to a depth a little below the soil level in the pot, then pushing back the soil around it to cover it up. I did this with about forty-five tomato seedlings; varieties were Sungold (imho by far the best tasting cherry tomato), Bellstar (the best paste tomato for this microclimate), and some slicing tomatoes: Jetstar, Cosmonaut Volkov, and a trial variety, Red Short Vine, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Jetstar is a dependable tomato; Cosmonaut Volkov, a Russian variety, is sublime tasting but in some seasons is difficult to grow—it doesn’t like a lot of water—and was named after a Russian cosmonaut who, I believe, was killed in space. Earlier this spring, I planted onions, spinach, shallots, beets, lettuce, arugula, cilantro, red cabbage, broccoli, chard, and a mesclun mix into this garden. In addition to tomato planting today, I also stuck a dozen brussels sprouts seedlings into the ground, but there's no trick to growing those hereabouts. The aphids that attack the sprouts in southern New England are absent here, and the only pests are the cutworm (not a problem if the soil is kept well organically) and cabbage moth.

One of the remarkable things that happened this spring was that I discovered the lettuce that I'd planted last August and covered with Reemay fabric in late October when the frosts arrived and it was still very small sized, was still alive under the Reemay when I removed it in early April. And since then it has grown, to the point where I've been eating it in salad, most days since mid-May until now. I thought that it would be bitter, but it's not. Good eating size now, it will go to seed in a few weeks, but I have more coming along that will replace it. The variety, Red Sails, is the one that consistently does best here, but it's not known as a particularly hardy variety for over-wintering, and this winter the temperatures did get to about ten below zero.
This is not a climate well suited to growing tomatoes, so various strategies can be used to increase one’s odds. For many years I’ve grown my own seedlings, as they are healthier and stockier than the ones I could get at the nurseries; the IRT mulch is another strategy, which keeps the soil warmer, keeps the weeds away, and holds the moisture in, all contributing to faster growth in a long, slow season. The most serious gardeners cover their rows with low tunnels or hoop houses to increase the temperature further and extend the seasons, but that’s more work and expense than I want to do. In effect once I put the tomatoes into the mulch there is nothing more to do—no weeding, a little watering at first and whenever it gets quite dry—except harvest them in midsummer and fall. Volkov can be early some years; Sungold usually ripens at the end of July. Bellstar is usually ready in two waves, one at the end of August and the other in mid-September. I put up the paste tomatoes in puree and sauce for use during the year. The others are consumed during the summer and fall.

In the 1980s when I was first gardening here, I made a number of mistakes with the tomatoes. The biggest mistake was staking them; as they rose up they became more attractive to the deer and tempted them to jump the garden fence and devour them, which they eventually did. Beans going up poles attract the deer the same way. But if I let them sprawl on the mulch they remain relatively clean and don’t attract the deer; and as for beans, the bush varieties don’t attract them nearly so much. Soybeans are very attractive, though—and so I usually plant those in a garden that’s better protected from deer than this one by the old store. Another mistake was hardening the seedlings off too quickly, or putting them in the ground too soon, in temperatures that were too low. Below fifty degrees will check their growth until they’ve gotten used to the low fifties. In Massachusetts and Minnesota you can plant your tomatoes around May 20; here, you’re better off waiting until June 1 at the earliest. It’s not simply a matter of frost; temperatures below fifty will set their growth back significantly. Another mistake was not using mulch. In the old days folks used black plastic and, used to gardening in warmer climates, I didn’t really want to put down that ugly black plastic mulch because I didn’t think it was needed. But it made quite a difference once I began to try it—the difference between bringing some varieties to ripeness or not. I tried other kinds of mulch such as grass clippings but the black plastic, and now the IRT mulch, is far better. Deer can always be a problem, and fences must be renewed and kept up. A dog helps.

So we shall see how well the tomatoes do this year. Last year was a good one for tomatoes whereas 2009 was not—it was a cool, wet summer and by the end most of the gardens were victimized by late blight. I was able to harvest quite a few that year but the blight eventually got to my garden as well, and nothing after the first of September was worth saving.

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