Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reviewing This Year's Varieties

So the season seems to have entered the final stretch ... this is right about the time I'm starting to think about lessons I've learned this season, start to plan for next season, and in general wonder where the growing season went. Don't get me wrong, I love summer (even our summers), but it's hard not to miss the growing season.

One thing I will say about this season: it wasn't great. It could have been worse, but I wasn't exactly breaking records, if you get my meaning. I had much worse disease problems than normal. In the end, I grew six varieties of tomatoes, including Brandywine, Cherokee purple, yellow pear, Big Boy, Early Wonder, and Victoria Supreme. The picture above shows a bit of everything except the Big Boys and Early Wonders. Here is my quick review of each:

  • Brandywine: Amazing taste, beautiful tomato, the rightful queen of TomatoLand. After fending off massive disease problems with an aggressive spraying program, I got a medium yield of medium to large fruit. Still, just on bragging rights alone, this is a winner, and my friends and family loved them. My advice: if you're going to grow these, plan on spraying from the beginning.
  • Cherokee purple. Beautifully colored, excellent fruit. I'll definitely grow these again—people regularly ask me if I have any more to give away. I also got a pretty heavy yield for an heirloom, although the fruit were generally a bit smaller than the Brandywines. It was somewhat more disease resistant than the Brandywine and ripened earlier, although they were also sprayed. The same advice applies here: if you're going to grow them, plan on spraying.
  • Yellow pear. Slow to start, but once it kicked in, I got loads and loads of fruit. Whole baskets full of these things. They are very sweet and delicious and I got in the habit of leaving them around in bowls as snack food. I lost two plants, though, to yellow frizzy top disease.
  • Victoria Supreme. Excellent disease resistance. Of all the tomatoes I grew this year, these were the only ones that didn't get sprayed at all. It's a great cooking tomato with very few seeds and quickly cooks down into a thick, rich sauce. I made up a sausage and pepper tomato sauce midway through the season, with fresh parmesan and a handful of basil, that was a big hit this winter. I'd grow these again as a standard paste tomato.
  • Big Boy. Well, they grew at least. I dunno. These are pretty dependable producers, aside from some splitting, and they have great disease resistance. They're quite lovely, too. But in a side-by-side taste test with Brandwines, they just ... squish a bit in comparison.
  • Early Wonders. I can see the appeal of a tomato that ripens in fifty days. It's really pretty amazing, especially considering that some of the others went WAY past their anticipated harvest dates before I started getting fruit. But these ... well, I don't want to speak ill of a tomato. Let's just say the flavor was insipid to middling and the skin was vaguely reptilian. I won't grow them again.
As far as growing methods are concerned, it was a pretty standard year, with the addition of a pretty aggressive spraying program. I'll cover this in another blog, since it's a big topic and deserves attention. I had to seriously rethink my devotion to organic gardening techniques this year.

Finally, I've gotten a few cool emails from people showing their own growing systems, so I'm going to post these in the near future, along with explanations of how they did it. If you have a particularly nifty method, or got outstanding results this year, feel free to shoot me an email.

Oh yeah ... I'll also try to get up some more harvest pictures, because everybody loves tomato smut.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reader's Questions, Part II

#1: I've had a problem w/something eating the tomatoes (see photo above), usually the day before I planned to pick the fruit. Is there something I can spray/put on the tomatoes to repel pests?

Answer: I've had the same problem before ... to me, this looks like rat damage from Norway rats (or roof rats or fruit rats). If you live in a neighborhood with lots of fruit trees, there are going to be fruit rats outside, and guess what? They like tomatoes. Rats typically eat tomatoes at night, leaving dime- or quarter-sized holes in the fruit, ruining that piece of fruit. Personally, I don't spray for rats—it's never got bad enough that I had to worry about it, and I figure they can take a few and it won't really hurt me much. If I had to spray for them, I'd probably test a homemade garlic or cayenne spray on a few tomatoes to see if it hurt them, then try that as a deterrent.

#2: About the container size. I see where you suggest 10 gallon. What would be a good source of something

this size?

Answer: I buy used 25-gallon tree containers from a local tree nursery for $5 each. I'm not overly concerned about the look of my tomato containers, and I like the big ones, so it's usually a simple matter of asking if they have any old ones laying around that I can take off their hands. You can also buy large (and much better looking) containers at most big-box stores. Remember that a cubic foot equals about 7.5 gallons, so it will take about two cubic feet of soil to fill a 15-gallon container. If the container isn't labeled for size, use its soil-holding capacity as a general guide and remember: the bigger, the better.

#3: Will picking your tomatoes on the earlier side reduce pressure on the plant and allow it to set more fruit? I have a bunch in the light red phase right now, but due to the cold weather, not a ton of green fruit coming on. Wondering if picking will allow the plant to make more tomatoes?

Answer: Not really. Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to produce fruit as long as the vine is still growing. However, you can produce larger fruits by removing some of the flowers so the plant puts more energy into the fruits that remain. Also, topping your plants will encourage larger fruit and (obviously) stop new tomato production.

#4: My biggest frustration is with my tomato plants the past 2 years. I grow them in ground, they grow up as healthy large plants. They produce plenty of flowers-but before they have opportunity to fruit-something is eating them. Whatever it is seems to occur at night-the buds are nipped off one after another, only the flowers-the rest of the plant is fine. I have sprayed 'Safer" organic spray over the flowers and is not helping-more flowers have been eaten. I reviewed your blog but did not see anything mentioned regarding what pest could be causing this.

Answer: This was a stumper for me. I figured maybe some kind of beetle or caterpillar was active, so the standby treatment is bacillus thuringiensis (BT) for chewing insects. But honestly … I never did find a bug that targets tomato flowers specifically at night. If you are the author of this question and feel like jumping in, I'm very curious: whatever happened in the end? Did you take care of the issue and set some fruit after all?

#5: I'm worried about the cold front coming through early this week.What is the best way to protect them?

Answer: Ah, cold damage. This is persistent concern for us as we typically have at least one or two cold fronts pass through each year (although we've probably seen the last of our cold weather this year). In general, tomatoes can withstand down to 50 degrees without too much trouble, although they will likely stop setting fruit. If the weather is going below that, water the plants before the night sets, then cover the plants during the night. I've also seen people wrap their plants with LED holiday lights, which give off just the tiniest bit of heat, and it really seems to work.

#6: Since you use concrete reinforcing mesh for your cages, I'm curious if the rust on them is a concern?

Answer: The rust itself isn't a concern, but it's definitely best to keep your tomatoes off the wire supports. A tomato rubbing against its cage will cause misshapen, scarred and rough fruit.

And #7 … This question has been posed in various ways by lots of people, so I won't print any particular letter. And (just because I'm difficult like that) I'm not going to answer it right now either because it's a 10-pound question in a 2-pound bag. But here it is: "What are the best varieties of tomato to grow in South Florida?" You'll immediately see why it's such a big question—it's a bit like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite (the tall one? the smart one? the one that looks like you? or the one that doesn't look like you?). And it's also highly personal, because my taste in tomatoes might not be your taste in tomatoes. Nevertheless, in the near future I'll give you my two cents, for what it's worth. Which, in all reality, is just about two cents.