tomato waiting

It seems extra long this year, waiting for the red tomatoes.  Growers in other parts of the country proudly show off their ripe, red fruits, but here it’s just tap tap tapping my toes, waiting.  Finally today I saw my first blush of orange.

Not a huge deal.  I got a late start, and then the seedling had to be nursed through some extra cool weeks at the beginning of the season.  But all that fretting about whether the plants had been sitting too long, whether they were too leggy to thrive?  I forgot about it a couple of weeks into June.

the best tomato cages...concrete reinforcing wire

the best tomato cages…concrete reinforcing wire

As in most things in life, there are as many ways to cultivate tomatoes as there are growers.  For me, using 5′ concrete reinforcing wire cages is indispensable.  The 2 1/2′ wide cages are strong enough to withstand monster plants, the openings are plenty big enough to get hands in and tomatoes out.  And it keeps the plants up off the ground, away from soil-borne nasties.

I’ve been babying the plants along, spraying them with worm tea, aspirin and epsom salt solution every so often.  With the soggy soil, I’m just waiting for the blight to swoop in.  But so far, so good…


Cherokee Purple #1 tomato


German Johnson Pink


Cherokee Purple #2 tomato


thoughts on tomato culture

There are as many opinions about the best methods for growing tomatoes as there are varieties.  And I’d bet you that they all work for the right people in the right situations.

This is what I currently believe (and I reserve the right to change my opinion)…
First, and most importantly I’m convinced that mulch is fundamental.  It maintains more even temperatures and moisture for the plants.  It also keeps leaves from direct soil contact, reducing the risk of disease.  But I hold off on the mulch until the weather and soil surrounding the plants has warmed reliably.  Grass clippings are my favorite.
Then of course there’s the sucker debate.  Over the years I’ve pinched suckers and trained vines up stakes.  I’ve gone the hands-off route too, letting the plants sprawl. I’m not sure whether it’s a direct cause and effect, but it seems to me that in years when I’ve pinched out suckers, my plants usually succumbed to disease earlier.  And letting tomato plants sprawl can be a jumbled mess.
That’s why I heartily endorse remesh cages, 5′ tall by 2 1/2′ wide. The plants are supported well and kept off the ground. There’s no need for pinching out suckers; everything’s tucked in behind the wire.

But I also believe that it’s good practice to continually monitor the lower branches of the plants and trim them off when they touch the ground. It opens up air flow and keeps the plant away from soil-borne nasties.

I try to keep from touching the plants when they’re wet, and never water them in the evening, again for disease prevention.

The real key to tomatoes though is the soil. Start there. Compost, compost, compost. If your soil’s right you don’t need anything else. But if you feel the need to meddle (like me), eggshells or tums, Epsom salts, and banana peels are usually good additions from the folklore department. And a light dose of fish emulsion a few times a season doesn’t hurt anything.

Finally, two ways that I’ve had success with in keeping disease at bay are 1) Neem oil spray (which is derived from an evergreen, and is both a fungicide and insect repellant) and 2) aspirin dissolved in water sprayed on the tomato leaves every couple of weeks. I use a regular 80 mg tablet crushed and dissolved in water, which is supposed to stimulate the plants’ natural immune system.

The only tomato pest I’ve had trouble with is the tomato hornworm, a gigantic green worm that can devour plants like I devour ice cream. The first, and most sure-fire defense is search and destroy. Look for devastated leaves and dark green droppings, then look again. They’re masters of disguise. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, an organic bacteria) works when you don’t have time to survey all the plants.

But in the end, sometimes even with your best efforts, the weather intervenes or something just goes blooey. Hazards of the game.

That’s my 2 cents. If you don’t see pictures of my tomato plants in this blog after a while, you’ll know you shouldn’t have believed anything you read here.


the wages of impatience

I can’t explain some things. Like how, year after year after year, I can’t resist planting tomatoes out earlier than I should. It’s not a problem with other vegetables. Just tomatoes.

After an initial assessment of the ten day forecast a few days ago, I decided that it was worth the risk. Now I’ll be making extra work and worry for the next week or two, trying to keep them healthy. In two days, the low is now projected to be in the high 30s.

But before that gets here, there are three or four days with highs in the 80s.

So instead of planting the seedlings next week and sitting back, I need to protect them from both heat and blazing sun. Ever more contraptions.

IMG_4689 IMG_4690

This is actually working pretty well for sun protection. I lined up the unused tomato cages and fastened shade cloth to them. So far so good. There are t-posts at either end with a wire strung through the cages to prevent the whole thing from blowing down. Even my understanding wife is looking at me sideways.

Then on Tuesday, the hoop houses and tarps and blankets will come out, and the fingers will be crossed.

There are two things that I can do to solve this; one, plant the tomato seeds still later so that the seedlings don’t get so tall that I feel like they have to go out too early. And two, pay attention to the promises I make myself every freaking year to be patient.

concrete (reinforcing wire) jungle part 2

It’s kind of like singing Christmas carols in February I guess, talking about cantaloupe in November.  But it’ll be a long winter, so I’m ok with that.

Last spring I had some extra tomato cages, the ones made out of 5′ concrete reinforcing wire.  There was quite a bit of information available about growing cantaloupe vertically on fencing, but not much at all about growing them in cages. This made me a little leery of the concept, but I plunged in anyway (the cages are marked in red, because they’re a little hard to detect). I placed a piece of cattle panel over the top of the four neighboring cages, just in case the vines needed more support or real estate once they made it to the top…

cantaloupe cages 1As the melons grew, things became more and more hopeful.  I watched them daily and restrained the over-eager pioneers that wanted to shoot right to the top by winding them around the circumference.  Baby melons started to appear and I made sure to train them to grow outside of the cages, because the openings are only 6″ (one drawback of the system).  The melon hills thrived and grew nicely up the towers.

cantaloupe cages 2

melon towersLong story short, I got lots of nice-sized cantaloupes, supported by salvaged apple bags tied to the cages.

But disaster struck before they could be harvested.  The beautiful healthy cantaloupe and watermelon crop was attacked by a soil-borne virus and died within a week.

The extension agent I talked to said there was nothing I could do.  So I may try one cantaloupe tower next year, but it was too wrenching an experience to repeat.  Live and learn.

concrete (reinforcing wire) jungle

Sometimes you need to balance functionality with aesthetics.  About ten years ago I bought a roll of concrete reinforcing wire, the kind that’s 5′ tall with 6″ openings, and knocked out 8 tomato cages.  The wire literally and figuratively became the backbone of the garden.

After using them I decided more were in order, because they’re so perfect; they keep the fruits off the ground, which limits disease and gnawing by insects, and they get the plants closer to eye level for easier inspection and care.

So what to do with the rest of the 100′ roll gathering dust?  Two light, effective cold frames.  I cut a tomato cage in half lengthwise.  One is covered with some translucent fiberglass siding that I had lying around, zip-tied to the wire ribs, and cracks filled with expanding foam.  The other is just covered with agricultural plastic cut to size and hot-glued.  And yes, they’re durable.concrete reinforcing wire cold framesIn fact, I picked these greens just last week…greens from the cold framesAnd to finish off the roll of wire, several seasonal fences that are supported with T-posts (another must-have in the efficient garden) and taken down in the fall.  They’re perfect for climbing vegetable plants like cucumbers, beans and squash.

wall of pickling cakes

wall of pickling cukes

fall leaves for the garden

For weeks, the trees shower down buckets and barrels and boatloads of nutrition for the garden.

My fall leaf strategy is this: to avoid picking up a rake at all costs.  It’s a miserable chore best left to wives and children. But when wives and children are involved with leaves there will be carnage and destruction.

Instead, I sit on the riding mower listening to Steely Dan, blowing those suckers into a windrow where they’re re-chopped with mower blades until I’m satisfied.  This serves two purposes; to reduce the volume of the leaves and to increase their surface area (which in turn discourages matting and promotes faster decay).  Then out comes the pull-behind grass catcher, and viola.

This season those wonderful concrete-reinforcing-wire tomato cages will work for me during the cold months. They make perfect storage containers for chopped leaves.  Why should they lounge in the barn taking up space when they can store shredded leaves that’ll make awesome mulch in the early spring, when grass clippings are just a gleam in God’s eye?  The leaf towers also serve as a windbreak for my cold frames.

Plus they’re an attractive garden feature for the neighbors.  Or maybe not.

fall leaves and garden cold frames