Thursday, December 30, 2010
The Great Organic Mind Game
I've been working my way up to this post for a while now, but you know ... it's been one of those things where reality has crashed into my preconceived notions, and that's never pleasant.
When I first started growing tomatoes in South Florida, I was a nut for organic gardening. Why bother growing your own if you're not going organic, right? I initially shied away even from chemicals you're allowed to use, like copper fungicide and BT for chewing bugs. Gradually, I got more comfortable with these and eventually decided that BT was the greatest thing since sliced bread and copper was crucial.
But for those first few years, I also didn't stray too far into TomatoLand. I grew mostly disease-resistant hybrids and loved the enormous harvests of perfect red tomatoes. Slowly, though, I started adding more heirlooms into the equation and discovered I loved those too. I like funky, knobby, weirdly colored tomatoes. And I like the huge ones. You know what I want? A black tomato the size of a basketball. That's right. Bring it.
Then came this season and my run at Brandywines and Cherokee purples (in case you're wondering, that's a Brandywine up there). You don't have to look far to find people who think these are the royalty of heirloom tomatoes, and I figured, hey, I've done this a million times before, so how hard can it be? And that's when reality crashed my little party.
Turns out that my two fondest desires ran headlong into each other: growing knobby heirlooms in South Florida and being an organic maniac.
So that's been my big lesson this season so far. I'm no longer sure it's possible to grow some of the more famous heirlooms in South Florida without using more powerful chemicals to control diseases and pests. I've been asking around among the professional growers I know, and they generally agree: you want to grow heirlooms, you need to spray. Simple as that.
Now, I'm not saying there aren't exceptions. I've done hardier heirlooms before that didn't get sprayed and turned out fine. And I have a feeling this year is particularly bad for diseases for me.
I'm not saying I'll stop growing the weird heirlooms. But from now on, when I grow a tomato that isn't naturally disease resistant, I'll be following a spray schedule from the moment that plant is outside, because preventing diseases is a lot easier than treating existing diseases. This means the new Brandywines, etc., are all going to be treated from planting onward.
I don't know exactly why this feels like a let-down. I have relatives and friends who garden up north, and while they openly (and sometimes in unhealthy ways) envy our weather, they also scoff at our disease problems. These are people who can grow huge heirlooms organically and hardly worry about anything more serious than a caterpillar. They just don't get how different it is down here—that growing in the ground isn't automatically easier, that our bugs could eat their bugs for lunch (literally), and that our environment teems with bacterial and fungal diseases.
Anyway, there it is. I'm working on a spray program this season for the heirlooms, relying on research conducted at the University of Florida and North Carolina State University. I'm just about to put the second crop of heirlooms into their pots outside, so I'll keep you posted on how it's going.
And p.s., I also read that we've had the coldest December in Florida history, thanks to some annoying weather pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation. Thankfully, they say the AO, which has been in place for a year now, is beginning to break up and the "worst is over." Hats off to that.