Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tomatoes Splitting

That's one split tomato, huh?

I've had a relatively serious problem with splitting this year, which means I've had to throw out more tomatoes than I like because they split and were later infested with worms or rot. Annoying.

Most books say that splitting is caused by watering issues. Periods of dry, followed by lots of water like a heavy rain, can cause splitting. It happens when the tomatoes are still green, and their skin/exterior is hard and inflexible. As the excess water rushes into the fruit, it causes a growth spurt that the young fruit cannot handle, so it splits.

We had very heavy rains in December this year, so I've been blaming my splitting on the rains. However, I've noticed that 90% of the splitting is confined to the tomatoes growing in the coconut coir grow bags. These are Better Boy hybrids, so they should be tough as nails—and I promise my watering has been absolutely consistent. I've been watering the grow-bag tomatoes every morning, just the same as the container-grown tomatoes in sphagnum. And these heirlooms and beefsteaks growing in sphagnum peat are hardly splitting at all.

So ... I've done tons of research on this and I can't find any proof that tomatoes grown in coconut coir are more liable to split. So have mine own eyes thus deceived me? I don't know. I do know that coconut coir has a different water-holding capacity than sphagnum peat; it's possible that daily watering is simply too much because the coconut coir holds water for so much longer. Then again ... professional growers using coconut coir water with daily drip irrigation. It's possible I have yet to really understand how to use coconut coir.

In any event, at the most basic level, tomato splitting is caused by inconsistent watering, with periods of dry followed by lots of water. I suspect in my case, there's a learning curve for using coir as a growing media, and next time, I'll try every-other-day-watering. If anyone out there has any insight, I'd love to hear it.

Finally, I did my second planting today. That's one nice thing about South Florida—we get two plantings every year. So this fall, I grew indeterminate tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and herbs. And earlier today, I planted determinate tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and strawberry. The eggplant and peppers are in an Earthbox, the determinate tomatoes and strawberries are in large containers with my normal peat-based mix. This time around, I'm testing another soil amendment called Biotamax. It's a soil probiotic, and I'll post on it soon.

And I guess that's it. I've been harvesting like mad lately, so I've been canning tomatoes, fermenting sauerkraut, and eating enough fresh tomatoes that sometimes I feel like I'm turning slightly red. But it's been nice, and even with the loss of so much fruit this year, we're still neck-deep in homegrown produce. And that's not a bad thing ...

Up Next: Catfacing

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some Harvest Photos

I know I promised a post on splitting, which has actually been a pretty significant problem this year (thanks December rains). And I'm planning a post on cat-facing also, which has affected a number of my heirloom and beefsteak tomatoes. But this is also harvest time—the fruit is ripening now and I'm picking tomatoes every day—so I thought I'd post a few harvest pictures. The varieties included in these pictures are Homestead 24, Belgian Giants, Better Boy, and Azoychka. (And cabbage.)

They were all harvested in the last four days.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

After the Cold Snap

Well, I did everything I could. I followed my own (and everyone else's) instructions to the letter. I covered plants, I watered to keep the soil warm, and I crossed my fingers. I'm glad to say my plants made it through the Great Freeze, but not exactly with flying colors. Here was the Belgian Giant on Dec. 23, about a week before it got cold:

And here it is this morning:

Obviously, a disaster.

On the good side, all my plants lived, and there is still plenty of fruit ripening. But the cold damage is extensive and ugly. When I told my wife I didn't want to post pictures because it was so depressing, she said, "Maybe it's time to get philosophical." And maybe it is. This season has not been kind to us tomato growers. A warm spell in October, torrential rains in December, and a freeze in January. So yes, we can't control what Nature will do. Sometimes it sucks.

But on the other hand, there are many much worse things than having a mediocre harvest or losing a few plants. I've spent this season so far closely attuned to the weather, to the changing of the seasons, to the natural environment. I've been connected to the world, to the planet, and we've been enjoying freshly harvested tomatoes (among other crops) all season. There are many worse things than watching the sky and wondering if it will rain. No matter what happens, it's never a loss to grow and nurture something. It's never a loss to care.

Up Next: Tomatoes Splitting

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tomatoes and Freezing

If I hadn't just been outside, I would have a hard time believing this. But here's the latest from the National Weather Service, as of 12:12 a.m.:

Rest of Tonight
Cloudy with isolated showers in the evening...then partly cloudy. Breezy and much colder. Lows 30 to 35. Northwest winds 15 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 20 percent. Lowest wind chill readings around 20.

I saw on the news they spotted snow in Boynton Beach.


I've covered my tomatoes for the night, and I watered them this evening. It was a very odd thing to run a hose until the water warmed up. Normally, we have to run hoses in South Florida until the hot water runs out and it cools down. But tonight, the city water is 15 degrees warmer than the water sitting in the hose. My bare feet actually went numb with cold when I checked my plants just now, and I can promise you it's been years since that happened. I haven't missed it a bit.

There's not much more to do right now, except hope it doesn't actually freeze. So 'mater growers, let's keep our fingers crossed and hope the temps somehow stay above 32ยบ.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tomatoes and the Cold

Here's the question on everybody's mind: is this cold spell going to hurt my tomatoes?

With temperatures dropping into the mid-30s earlier this week, and another cold blast expected for Saturday and Sunday, it's time to worry about cold tolerance.

Fortunately, tomatoes withstand cold fairly well. They do not, however, withstand frost or freezing. So if you live out west, and there's frost coming, you need to protect your plants. And even with the regular cold, I've noticed that cold tolerance depends somewhat on the variety. All of my plants are still thriving, except for the Belgian giants, which have extensive browning on the leaves due to cold damage. The rest look fine, and the fruit hasn't been affected.

Nevertheless, here are some basic measures you can take to protect your tomatoes:

  1. Continue to water thoroughly. The municipal water in South Florida is between 62 and 70 degrees, depending on the time of year. Also, watering helps keeps the plant hydrated, which is very important as cold causes plants to dry out because they aspirate water faster than their sluggish roots can take it up. On very cold nights, water in the late afternoon, while the sun is still up, so the plant heads into the night in warm(ish) soil.
  2. Cover your plants. This is more for frost protection, but covering will protect them from wind also. Use a sheet or plastic bag and try to completely cover the plant all the way to the ground. If you use a bag, remember to remove it the next day before the sun comes out and cooks your plants.
  3. If you can, move them inside. If you have container tomatoes and a garage, drag them inside on nights where the temp is expected to go below about 40.
Boy, this season has been something else, huh? First we had that historic heat wave in October, and now we have a historic cold snap. In both cases, it was the Belgian giants that suffered the most, so I can only draw the conclusion this particular variety has a narrower temperature tolerance than the others. The Better Boy, which is a common, garden-store hybrid, seems to be shrugging off the cold just fine.

Ultimately, unless it freezes or we experience a frost, I don't expect this cold spell will seriously damage the plants, even taking into account the cold damage to the leaves. But I will be covering my Belgian giants tonight.

As a last note, that top picture shows some of the earliest tomatoes I've harvested. Those are yellow Azoychkas and the very first Belgian giant pink tomato. Since I took this, I've also started to harvest Better Boy and Marvel Stripe (a particularly beautiful orange and red tomato with a very fruity flavor). I'll post pictures soon ...

In the meantime, let's cross our fingers and hope it doesn't freeze!