The End of the Tomato Era, aka- 7 lessons learned this year

This past weekend, our tomato season came to an end. Lets take a look at how this year went, shall we? starting tomato seeds I started seeds inside under a light and on a heat mat on February 24. Varieties seeded were Cherokee Purple, San Marzano, Principe Borghese, Chadwick Cherry, Sun Gold Cherry, Marmande, Striped German, Stupice, and the Dutchman. Most we had grown before, but a few, like the Principe Borghese, were new varieties. By March 1, most of the seeds had sprouted. On March 26, the seedlings moved up in the world and I transplanted them into 4″ pots. They came inside at night, but otherwise hung out outside during the day, hardening off. 4 inch potsJust a few weeks later, on April 13, I deemed them grown up and kicked them out of the house into their permanent bed. Surrounded by the cages we built a few years ago, one of each variety was interplanted with marigolds and a few basil plants, then mulched with alfalfa. The remaining of the starts went to neighbors or got pawned off on friends. IMG_2781 Things went well, and all the plants progressively grew. Lesson One: the cages need to be anchored to the ground, instead of just hanging out on top of the soil. The weight of the plants started to make them lean, causing me to scramble and concoct rock/rebar/stick propping concoctions to prevent the plants from tipping over and breaking. sun beam The first ripe tomato we got was on June 30, from the Stupice plant. Not a surprise, as this plant is known for being an early producer. My mom grows this variety with great success, as her growing season is only about 90 days (as opposed to the 250ish I have here). Lesson TwoNot a fan of the Stupice variety. They were smallish, oddly shaped, and generally not very great. I wasn’t impressed, and since I have a long season that accommodates the varieties that need that, I likely won’t use up the space for these and I won’t grow them again.

By mid August, I had already gotten 2 full batches of the Chadwick Cherry and Principe Borghese drying tomatoes run though the dehydrator. Lesson Three: No taste difference between the two varieties. Chadwick produced more prolifically, but the Principe Borghese held on the vine longer without cracking. They took the same amount of time to dry, and are very similar in size. I will likely grow both again. tomatoes for drying Sadly, we lost almost every single San Marzano and Cherokee Purple to Blossom End Rot. This was the first year that I had this issue, and was very sad when I went to harvest and discovered the bottom half of all my fruit had been rotted away. I watered in a calcium supplement early August, which may have saved a handful of fruit, but otherwise those plants were a total bust. Lesson FourAdd a crap ton of calcium to the soil prior to planting. I was overly confident that the new soil in our beds would be nutritious enough, but I was clearly wrong. I bought paste tomatoes from a local farm to turn into sauce. Only a few Cherokee Purple escaped the rot. It wasn’t very good, mealy with poor flavor. Lesson Five: If at first you don’t succeed, try again. I love this variety, as they make an excellent BLT or just a sliced salad. I will try again next year, but with different seed. This plant came from seed I had saved from a start from a previous year, and there is a chance it just wasn’t a good one. cherokee purpleThe Sun Golds, normally the top cherry tomato producer in a home garden, is also one of my favorites. But our plant sucked ass. It started well, but then turned into a brown, sad shriviley mess. I didn’t even bother harvesting, as the fruit had leather tough skin and had a sickingly fermented sweet flavor. This was planted on the end of the bed, which got the full strength of the sun for most of the day, which I think was just to much sun and heat. Lesson Six: create a microclimate for the tomatoes, or try planting the Sungold in the middle of the bed. I think if I plant some sunflowers or cosmos on the end of the bed, to diffuse the sun and heat, I’ll have more success. sad sungold Thankfully, our other big heirloom, the Striped German, escaped the rot and produced quite a few beautiful fruit that were great for slicing and meeting our sandwich needs. Towards the end of the season, though, they were significantly smaller in size and not as tasty. Perhaps the reduction in water, or battling the heat, resulted in less desirable fruit. I think I will try them again next year. IMG_3645 By mid-September, I had yet to get anything off the Dutchman. By mid September, I decided I was over this year’s tomato adventure. Because that was when I found the hornworms. horn wormNow I don’t consider myself a squeamish person. I regularly squish cabbage worms with my fingers. I have no fear of snakes. I took care of Madagascar hissing cockroaches at a past job with only slight disgust. I’m the designated spider killer in the family. But these things make me have chills and make me want to throw up. I thought I was immune to these have-no-right-to-be-alive creatures, as I’d never had them before. I thought they were only a pest other people had to deal with. I honestly didn’t even know they existed in our area. Clearly, I was wrong. Not familiar with the tomato horn worm? They are nasty. At about 4-5 inches long and as thick as a cigar, not even the chickens would touch it. chickens and horn wormSeriously, look at that chicken’s face. I’m pretty sure thats a “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING?” look. fuck noAnd by the time I noticed these worms, they were giant. Which means they had been munching on my plants for who-the-hell knows how long. UGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG. I had no desire to continue to pick tomatoes. I was afraid to get close to the vines, in case one of these things fell off on me (highly unlikely, but a completely plausible idea in my mind). Which brings us to Lesson Seven: prevent the horn-worm. Have good integrated pest management, encourage natural predators, blah blah blah. I think the best goal for me is to plant my plants less densely, so I can see the vines better. Horn worms blend in like nobody’s business, but my 9 plants in one bed created a big tomato vine mass. I think 5 would be a more appropriate spacing, which might making inspecting the vines easier, or would at least allow me to reach in between plants to harvest without having to practically crawl INSIDE the vine (and potentially being attacked/touched by hornworms). bushy vines Luckily, most of the tomatoes were done by the time I discovered this evil, and I forced myself to do a few more harvests, at full arm length away while eye the greenery with intense paranoia. I stopped watering, and this past weekend, we called it done and I had Matt help me rip out the plants. hauling away We found no more hornworms. last harvest The last of the ripe tomatoes were harvested and turned into sauce by slow roasting with herbs and olive oil at 300 degrees foreverrrrrrrr. The green ones were turned into chutney.

As always, I love to hear from you. How are your tomatoes doing? Did you have hornworms this year? What bugs are you creeped out by?

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13 thoughts on “The End of the Tomato Era, aka- 7 lessons learned this year

  1. Smashing tomato post! No pun either.

    I pretty much quit caging the maters. I just let them grow “as they like” and gently prop the perimeters with skinny rods acting as a mini fence. It all became more trouble than I was willing to fix.

    Hornworms! You know what? I didn’t have a single one this year, nor were the leaf-footed a prob. Only thing I can guess is they didn’t like the cherry variety. I planted only one slicer, but our squirrels like to bite into the green ones, so got only 20-30 edible fruit from it. The 6 cherries? Two pints a day from april through July. Thank goodness we are six who all love fresh, daily bites of sunshine.

    Your chicken bit put me over this morning! That is a serious face indeed.

    I’ll bet you’re glad to have a big, beautiful garden space. Now if it would just rain every now and again. Thank you for sharing your tomato adventure. My kind of post. Cheers, Melissa!

    1. PS – no insect creeps me out, and I save spiders, wasps and cockroaches alike. If the insects ever rise up, I think they would chose me as their leader. LOL

    2. uggg…maybe all the hornworms left Texas and migrated over to us. Quite a few other people had them as well who had never experienced them before.

  2. Yes we had hornworms too. Rick sprayed BT on them. 100% organic and we only applied it once. It is a bacteria that rots the worm from the inside and they did not come back. For caterpillars, meal worms, etc. If you want more info call Rick he spoke to someone who works at Davis knew a lot.

  3. This is a seriously fantastic post! I LOVE it!

    I’ve found that paste-type tomatoes seem to be more susceptible to blossom end rot in general, but I’ve been growing Opalka with far less BER issues than most others. Jersey Giant did well in this regard, too.

    I think I’ve also come to the conclusion that any heirloom that has “German” in its name is worth trying – Striped German is beautiful!

    1. I’ve heard of Opalka, but never tried them. I’ll make sure to keep them in mind for next year! The Striped German had double/ruffly blossoms as well, the first I’ve seen like that.

  4. You were the main source of my tomatoes this year! Our container garden produced some different results:

    -Striped German – gorgeous and tasty, but SO FRAGILE. They went from underripe to mush so quickly that harvesting them was tricky. The plant was a low-producer and turned brown first.

    -San Marzano – LOVED IT! This and the Bush Roma were super-producers. There was only a little blossom rot, and Michael made lots of amazing BBQ sauce with them. Definitely want more of these next year.

    -Stupice – No. Just no. I read so many articles RAVING about how amazing these tomatoes are, but those people must live in really different climates. They were odd and HARD. Did you notice that? Chopping them was like trying to chop a golf ball. Never again.

    -Chadwick Cherry – Good, solid producer of yummy cherry tomatoes. Definitely will grow again.

    -Principe Borghes – This poor plant. We had it inside for WAY too long, then planted it in a pretty small pot. For some reason it bounced back from the abuse and is still giving us tomatoes! They dry really quickly. I’d love more next year.

  5. Your sense of humor totally cracks me up! Yes, we’ve found out the hard way that you have to anchor those big old cages too. No hornworm this year and (knock on wood) very little blossom end rot on the san marzanos. But our peppers got soft rot, which apparently is the same sort of thing…they were planted right next to each other strangely enough. We did mostly San Marzanos & Consoluto Genovese, which both did great. We planted one Big Rainbow which makes amazingly small tomatoes but they are so sweet! The black cherries were a bust.

    1. thanks Kendra!

      I’ve never heard of Consoluto Genovese, I’ll have to take a look. My San Marzano that I grew when we were in Petaluma was AMAZING! I got like 50 pounds of one plant! Sad for this year, but hopefully next will be better.

  6. My mom grew up in the Sacramento Valley and hornworms were plentiful enough that they used to put them in the street, dangle their legs over the curb, and play a version of “chicken” when a car drove past. (If you lifted your legs, you were chicken. If you got sprayed with caterpillar guts, you weren’t.)

    The one year I had them I also planted so densely that I had to crawl around and under to harvest my tomatoes. Living mulch saved watering and cracking, but likely allowed them to survive the heat. They also liked a young pecan tree we had. My husband was so angry that they’d eaten every leaf on it that he went to town on them with sandals as clappers of doom.

    I only squick with maggots. I had a traumatic experience when I was 3-4 years old involving a dead cow. All the other crawlers and creepers are fine by me, although it did take some time to adjust to Texas’s tree roaches.

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