This past weekend, our tomato season came to an end. Lets take a look at how this year went, shall we? 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. Just 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. 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. 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 Two: Not 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. 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 Four: Add 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. The 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. 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. 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. Now 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. Seriously, look at that chicken’s face. I’m pretty sure thats a “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING?” look. And 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). 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. We found no more hornworms. 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?