Saturday, August 8, 2009

In the Garden: Tomato Plants

This summer, I have tried my hand at vegetable gardening. Before digging up our yard, I decided I would give container gardening a chance. I have 15 large tomato plants, most of them in pots, 4 or 5 cherry tomato plants, several types of lettuce, sweet peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, celeriac, eggplant and lots of herbs.

Ever since my canning escapades last year (see The Art of Canning, Sept. '08), I have been dreaming about growing my own tomatoes for canning. And the tomato I have had in mind is the San Marzano. An Italian tomato with a wonderful reputation for canning; how could I resist? I also have two heirloom varieties - brandywine and oxheart. And the rest are yellow pear tomatoes, I think.

Back in the early spring, my sister brought me several little tomato seedlings, half of them San Marzanos. I nursed those little guys along for what seemed like ages. Around the time that rhubarb came into season, I noticed that my tomato plants were not only incredibly long and skinny (some over 10 inches long with hardly any leaves), but they were also changing from green to a weird gray-green colour. I knew I had to act fast. I threw the baking sheet full of plants into the back of the car and headed over to see Steve at Cooper's farm for some advice. He told me to that they would have to be fertilized as soon as possible and I left with instructions on what I needed to do.

Instead of heading to a garden centre, I drove over to Farmer Jones' place. I told him I had a 911 emergency with my tomato plants. He looked them over and then we went out to his shed, where he mixed up some fertilizer in a watering can. He poured the mixture over my plants and told me that most of them would probably live. He assessed that the plants weren't getting enough sun and that I should be putting them outside in the sun during the day. But not in the wind. Quickest way to kill a young tomato plant is to let the wind burn it. Farmer Jones was generous with his advice, and for his trouble, I baked a rhubarb custard pie for him and his wife.

While the tomato plants got back on their feet, I carted those things around like they were a third child, moving them around our deck several times a day depending on the sun and the wind. Finally, it was time to get them planted. I mixed potting soil with manure and most of them went into the several pots that were purchased especially for them. I should mention that my sister was here again, prodding me to get the darn things into soil before I really lost them for good. I was nervous, unsure if the spindly little plants would really be able to survive without coming into the house at night.

Those little plants have now turned into some pretty big plants, most sporting some degree of green fruit. As it turns out, our deck isn't that great for catching the strong afternoon sun and my plants have suffered somewhat. My neighbour Nancy, the gardener, suggested that I move the pots to the west side of the house where the sun beats hardest. I am still dragging the plants around; for watering (I really need to buy a second hose to reach them), for cutting the grass underneath them, and for research (how will they do against this fence?). Nancy has even taken one of the plants over to her house to see how it does in a certain area of her garden. When you have 15 plants, and they say that one plant will feed a family of 4, you can afford to share the wealth! (Our raspberry bushes are behind the pots, not producing much fruit, but taking up more room every year...)

I was in Niagara at my sister's house last week. She has tomatoes in her garden, some in the ground and some in pots, all of them enjoying the same prime location. We have come to the conclusion that the plants in the ground are doing much better because of two things. The pots don't hold moisture very well and it is easy for the plants to dry out. We also believe that there are a limited amount of nutrients in the pots and the tomatoes in the ground are able to spread their roots farther and access all of those good things in the soil.

Then there is the question of organic. Of course, if I'm going to be growing fruit and veggies for my family I want them to be organic. But is it really organic if I have to feed those plants with Miracle Gro tomato food? Probably not. Farmer Jones never uses any chemicals on his plants (he doesn't use the fertilizer that he mixed up for me). What's his secret? Chicken manure. Hard to come by, unless you have a flock of chickens. I might try composting to see if I can produce some ultra rich soil for next year. Improving the quality of the soil is probably one of the most worthwhile things that I can do. For now, I'm going to keep gardening, asking questions, and feeling good that next year will be even better... and there is nothing like a clean slate.