Sunday, August 25, 2013

those amazing red orbs

My first garden plants were tomatoes in pots, along the steps leading down to our basement suite. 

In my second house, I also planted tomatoes - out front in what were supposed to be flower beds. 

In our third rental, I moved into the garden 2 months before we moved into the home, mostly so I could get my tomatoes in. 

Now in our fourth home, and first HOME, I try to squeeze in a few more tomatoes every year! The first year, I dedicated an entire bed to tomatoes. Their spacing was determined by how close I could get the tomato cages. But now, oh NOW I have learned. Thanks to the square foot gardening method, I have discovered that a single tomato plant only requires a single square foot of soil. And when you use indeterminate plants, they can sprawl upwards along a single piece of twine instead of requiring a bulky cage. If you don't top them, they just keep growing and growing, producing more and more glorious tomatoes. So now I have 15 tomato plants in the garden and 5 in pots. I'm sure there are many people with more, so I'm not bragging, just happy with what I've got. :) 

It took me a long time to figure out the difference between determinate tomatoes and indeterminate ones. The books say "you prune the indeterminate and don't prune the determinate", but I wanted to know WHY. Why? What makes them different? If you're curious like me, here's some of the differences I have learned from books and just from watching my various types of plants.

1. Determinate plants are basically bushes, with no obvious "trunk". However, even without pruning, an indeterminate tomato has a fairly clear leading stem. 

2. Determinate plants ripen most of their fruit at the same time. You may have a few renegades before the final onslaught, but in general, they'll all suddenly be ready within a couple weeks. This makes them good for canning since you don't have to wait 2 months in between the first and final fruit. 

3. Indeterminate plants ripen as the fruit grows. The fruits on the bottom will, obviously, ripen much before the rest. And the ripening will move upwards. This is why many people "top" their tomatoes in August: pinching off the top of the leading stem so there's no more new fruits, allowing the older fruits to mature. I personally don't really care to do this before September, since I figure I can always ripen them inside after the frost. 

4. Indeterminate plants can get bushy too, if you don't prune them. From what I've gathered from observing my parents' garden and my own, if you don't prune, your fruit never ripens, because it just keeps starting more and more tomatoes. So you'll end up with a lot of tomatoes at the end of the year, but they'll all be green. If you prune religiously, you'll have a decent crop of nice ripe tomatoes maturing at different times. I like to hedge my bets and allow one or two branches to go nuts on my tomato plants, giving me a nice compromise between lots of fruits and ripe fruits.

I have 9 Early Girl plants this year, and, while they don't taste majestic, they are great for canning and produce quite reliably. They are also indeterminate so they just keep on giving all summer! I started mine in March 4 and picked the first ripe on on July 22. I'm sure with a greenhouse you could do better than 4 1/2 months, but our spring was crazy cold so I was happy just to have a ripe tomato in July! I've picked almost 9 lbs off them so far, with lots of unripe and semi-ripe ones left to go. Hopefully we'll have a lovely September to make up for a miserable spring. 

The other type of tomato I've had pretty good luck with in a big pot has been Taxi. I've had about 6.5 lbs off the one plant. It's a determinate, so it's tough to compare at this point with the Early Girls. Bear in mind that I don't use any chemical fertilizers. If I did, there probably would be a lot more. I might consider it for my potted tomatoes next year, since the main concerns about chemical fertilizers are 1) leaching, which pots do anyway, and 2) disrupting the soil microorganisms, and the transient nature of pots isn't very conducive to their life anyway.

Happy tomatoeing! Next up, canning tomatoes the EASY way...

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