Sunday, April 6, 2014

Tomayto, Tamahto - Part 1


It’s easy for me to get carried away when purchasing seeds – my eyes are too big for my garden, so to speak.  This applies to all seeds - but especially tomatoes.  There are so many different kinds – cherry, salad, slicing, paste; so many different colours – red (of course), yellow, orange, black(ish); so many different sizes, not to mention the range of tastes & textures.

How to choose...how to choose???

It’s overwhelming – especially as now some seed houses are devoted almost exclusively to tomatoes.  I want to say that this may actually be too much choice – But let’s be honest for a second - there's no such thing as too much choice when it comes to tomatoes....well, that's what I tell myself, anyway.

So back to my tomato saga.  When I first built my raised beds 2 years ago, I didn’t have the time or  set-up to start seeds indoors so I purchased plants from a local nursery.  This nursery is a small, locally run place that only sold a handful of hybrid tomatoes from which I selected “Sweet 100”, “Early Girl Improved”, “Balls Beefsteak” & “Roma Paste”. 

My tomatoes grew pretty well and I harvested over 23 lbs. of ripe tomatoes from 10 plants.  For all you tomato growing gurus, I’m sure this is a mediocre harvest from that many plants – but for my 1st try in over 8 years, I was happy with it.  And of course, some plants did better than others.  The worst was the Roma Paste – I harvested only 13 small tomatoes from that plant.  The most prolific plants, by far, were the Early Girl & Sweet 100.
 

Early Girl Tomatoes - 2012 (excuse the bird poop)
 
But, even though I was satisfied with the quantity, I was not impressed with the quality.  I am trying to keep notes on all of the varieties I grow, especially when it comes to taste.  The Sweet 100's were ok, but a bit on the sour side.  My notes for Early Girl included the following comment:  Taste is ok - not as flavourful as I would like - some have a bit of an unpleasant taste - kind of musty.

That was 2012.  In 2013, I set up a corner of our basement so that I could grow my tomatoes from seed. This year, I told myself, I would only grow heirloom tomatoes – I wanted that great tomato flavour and the hybrids just didn’t seem to cut it.

I purchased some heirloom tomato seeds from 2 seed companies right here in Ontario - The Cottage Gardener and OSC Seeds ----- and then completely forgot to note the seed starting date on my calendar.

Next thing you know its late April & I realized that I haven’t sown my seeds yet (big slap to the head).  Based on my last frost date, I should have sown them back in late March.  So I was a month behind from the start.  Well, I plunged ahead anyway and got them all sown on April 29th.  The weather in early May was beautiful so I was all excited thinking that this was indicative of a wonderful summer ahead.  And then BAM – we had one of the coolest & wettest starts to the growing season in years.

June felt more like early May with only a handful of days reaching 20°C (68°F).  Then July came – it was hot but also very humid with lots of rain.  A cool wet spring, followed by a hot humid summer – perfect conditions for fostering tomato diseases.  One of the issues with heirlooms that I completely failed to take into account was disease resistance.  Hello early blight & septoria leaf spot… 

So what else did I do wrong?  Well let’s see – how about the fact that I didn’t add any additional fertilizer besides compost to the bed (big slap to the head #2).  I only realized later that tomatoes are very heavy feeders and I should have used a lot more fertilizer in that bed.  I did dig in some chicken manure pellets half way through the season, which helped a bit, but I think it was probably a case of too little too late – my plants all looked pretty sad by the end of August.

And the final mistake I made - I was so excited about finally growing Brandywine tomatoes, which I kept hearing so much about, that almost half of my plants consisted of this variety.  It never even dawned on me that they were a late maturing tomato, which of course was compounded by the late sowing.  As we reached the end of August and I had yet to harvest a single Brandywine tomato, I realized the error of my ways – I’ll forgo that slap this time as my head is getting sore J.

Even though I still managed a small harvest (14 lbs. of ripe tomatoes from 9 plants), all in all, it was pretty much a tomato disaster year…
 


A Very Sad Glacier Tomato Plant in August 2013
 
So I walked away from the summer of 2013 with a few tomato lessons learned:

  1. Always include at least a couple of disease resistant hybrids
  2. Fertilize heavily (I only use organic fertilizers (low NPK), so "heavily" would still be fairly low compared to traditional fertilizers)
  3. When choosing varieties, remember to take into account whether they are early, mid-season or late varieties
  4. Be thankful - No matter how bad a year it is, a few beautiful tomatoes are better than none

So here we are, at the start of the season one year later, and I am about to start my tomato seeds – but more about that in Part 2….

Till next time…

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” ~~ Robert Brault

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