Pomodoro ad nauseum

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As promised, the tomato “trellis” post which, it turns out, has become much more than just trellises. Sadly, the photo I posted is the best I could come up with. Our other photos show the trellis but also conatin very unflattering images of the resident farmers.

We had a pretty dismal tomato crop last summer for a number of reasons. First, we didn’t get them transplanted until summer (i.e.June 22). That’s too late. The plants we got from Hali were in big 6” pots but still, they’ve got to begin spreading their roots unrestrained earlier than that. The year earlier, I transplanted Haliburton Ray’s tomatoes on the 17th of March. But the next day there was a killing frost and he had to start over, which he did – successfully – and goes to show two things: that starting seedlings too early has more risks than rewards; and that you can often bounce back from things that look catastrophic. Nevertheless, transplanting mid-May last year would have been fine. But June 22nd? No. Again, that was out of our control.

The crop plan I’ve been drafting for this year calls for us to seed tomato plant starts in the first week of March for transplanting late April. But on second thought, given that we’ve got a plant start business to off-load unneeded seedlings for our own farm, perhaps we’ll do a couple of successions a few weeks apart. If all goes well on the first round, we’ll have early tomatoes. If not, the later batch can bail us out.

The second mistake I made last year was arbitrarily putting them in the shady second bed. I put them there simply because I started planting stuff from the long side and put the fingerlings in first because they were starting to rot. Next priority was the tomato starts. Why I didn’t just mark off the beds and find a sunnier bed a little further east, I’m not sure. Putting them under the maple shaded half the bed in mid-afternoon most of the summer. Another consequence of this decision was that our salad greens ended up being in the sunniest spot, a place they certainly didn’t need to be.

Third, they were not under cover which is not recommended here due to the cool, rainy weather we inevitably get either in the spring when they are very small or in the fall when they are very large. This sort of weather promotes blight. Last year, though, we got rain unexpectedly at the end of June, shortly after we had transplanted them. Fortunately, they did not get blight. In fact, friends of ours who had theirs in a greenhouse did get blight. They figure it was because it was too humid inside. They had been watering them a fair bit, apparently, so when it got cloudy and rainy, the humidity and lack of air circulation allowed the blight to get established. I note this because we will be housing our tomatoes in a greenhouse this year. Anyway, we did not escape late blight which occurred sometime during the September rains. It hardly mattered though because most of the fruit would not have ripened anyway. We partially salvaged the crop economically by canning green tomato salsa and selling it at $8/pint.

Finally, I don’t recall off hand what if anything we used to fertilize the starts but apparently it should be light on nitrogen and heavier on phosphorus. This year we’re going to get a sack of rock phosphate to give them what they need. I’ll also water them more frequently although probably not much volume. The reading I’ve done recently suggests that periods of dry followed by lots of water promotes blossom end rot and cracking. I don’t think we had either last year -just the blight- but still, better safe than sorry. On the other hand, they will be growing in a partial swamp this year so maybe they won’t need much irrigation at all. I’ll also space them at 18″ rather than 24′. I think that by the end of the season, they should just be starting to touch one another. At two feet spacing, we generally had 6″ between them at the end.

One of the last things I did on Foxglove Farm last May before finding our land was plant tomatoes. Interestingly, they put their tomatoes in 12” wide hills into which I used a bulb auger on an electric drill to produce deep holes into which the tomato seedlings were deeply buried, exposing only 6-8” of stem and leaves above ground. But that only worked because the root ball of the seedlings was 1”X2”. Last year, our tomato plants had a 6” diameter root ball so I had to use a shovel to dig holes. And we didn’t put them in hills because I decided I had a hate on for raised beds of any sort – didn’t believe in them – but I’m not sure about this year. I may very well put them in hills and drill out holes since our seedlings will be much smaller and planted out much sooner. In fact, if the early April forecast looks good, I could see planting them out then, and using a low remay tunnel within the high tunnel for extra protection against cold.

The bright spot of the last year’s failed crop was the T-post and wire trellis I built. For this scale of growing, it was quick, effective and reasonably cheap.

We started by transplanting the tomato starts by digging deep holes every two feet (a little closer next year, 18″?), adding some organic fertilizer, putting one end of a 10′ length of baling twine at the bottom of the hole and burying much of each start’s root ball and stem, leaving only ~8″ of plant above ground. The other end of the baling twine just sat on the bed until I built the trellis.

For the trellis, I pounded in 10′ T-posts every 12′ along the row but the ones at the ends I pounded in at a ~20 degree angle to vertical so that they leaned out past the row ends. Then I used 10′ 2X4’s to temporarily prop the end posts straight up while I ran 14 gauge wire end to end and put on as much tension as possible with turnbuckles. After I kicked out the 2X4’s propping up the end posts, there was even more tension on the wire as the post wanted to go back to its angled orientation. I used some light gauge steel wire to tie the main 14 gauge wire to the same height on each intermediate post. The “free” ends of each plant’s twine were tied to the high tension wire above. Every 7-10days, when I pruned the plants, I also wrapped the plant’s new growth around the twine.

In the high tunnels this year we won’t have to bother with the T-posts since we’ll have the structure of the high tunnel to tie baling twine to. But our plant starts will be smaller, probably in 2″ cells as opposed to the large 6″ pots that we got from Hali. My concern last year was that the end of the string below the root ball would come loose, but that didn’t happen. I suspect the weight of the soil and the action of the water and soil cement the string into place. When I cleaned up the tomatoes last fall, the strings only came out after a very sharp tug.

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