The tomato report 2013 (or, lets hear it for the little guys)

I wouldn't say this year is a banner season for tomatoes. But I'm not complaining! It's been an outstanding year for so many things, I think it might have been too much to deal with 20 pounds of tomatoes at a time. It's been a mostly cool summer around here, and fruit has come in slow but steady. I am getting near to hitting most of my preserving goals (I even made ketchup last week) and barring unforeseen calamity the usual end-of-season harvesting should get me enough salsa and canned tomatoes for the year. 

I have heard a fair amount of complaining from local gardeners about the late start. It was pretty cold in May, so if people were hesitant to plant, their harvests have come in pretty late. Some are just starting to get ripe fruit in mid- to late- August! Here's my tip to finicky-climate tomato growers: Diversify!
A pretty good representation of this year's harvest proportions

The small-fruited plants I grow, mainly plums (I have roma, principe borghese, and black plum this year) are truly the backbone of my operation. If I only grew long-season large fruit, I'd never have enough volume to preserve until very late in the year, if at all. I love a juicy brandywine tomato, and some years they lead the pack by weight harvested, but in years like this I didn't see a big pink beauty until August 25th. The first Roma and Principe (not even in the hoop house, mind you) were picked on July 9th! These little guys are also extremely prolific, and excepting tasks that involve peeling them in great quantities, they are a perfect all-purpose tomato. We dehydrate, sauce, ketchup (is that a verb?) and of course EAT them in just about everything. I've even peeled them for salsa, but it gets a little time-consuming.

My second tip for short season growers is: start (a few) early—and maybe a few late.

7 plants, neatly trellised via the weaving method.

I started about a half-dozen tomatoes inside about 3 weeks ahead of the rest. The plan was for these to go in the hoop house early: which they did. I planted two of them in hoop house in mid-April (somehow I have lost the date!) and they spectacularly died on a 19-degree night on April 20th. (There's a small chance I could have saved them with an additional layer of protection, but the forecast was about 10 degrees off that night...) Anyway, they were replanted on April 27th, and one of these early plants also went into my outside garden on May 13th. Both the hoop (Principe) and outside plant (Roma) produced their first ripe fruit on almost the same day. They are both 75-85 day varieties. Interesting!

The lesson I learned from this is starting plants early really does help, but then again, who wants to babysit 20 tomato plants for 3 extra weeks? My inclination is to keep starting a few early: I don't need all my fruit ripe in July, just enough for fresh eating and a few BLTS. The rest of my plants were started March 29th, and planted mid-May, and I've been quite happy with their performance. Having a few extra plants to start early also makes me a lot more patient with planting the rest of my crop.

Also—I stuck a last leftover Speckled Roman in the ground really late, and have been very happy with a robust plant fruiting up when the first main harvest wave is over. Staggering plantings can really help with a changeable weather year: last season when we had an extended 100 degree heat-wave my plants stopped setting fruit altogether. I had friends who planted really late and their tomatoes were happily growing vines during this hot spell, and proceeded to produce a bumper crop after the heat broke while mine were still recovering. Unless you want all your tomatoes ripe in the same week (I don't!), both staggering plantings and diversity of varieties can spread out your harvest, and mitigate the effects of bad streaks of weather.

And as for that hoop house?
2 tomatoes on the left, not trellised neatly at all--pretty much one massive bush.

My assessment after two hot-seasons of growing, is that the hoop doesn't really extend my tomato season that much. Because of it's small size—and our specific spring climate—I can't see getting them in the ground more than a few weeks early—and I've done that in my regular garden just with a few improvised cloches. They might extend later in the season, but realistically I need to pull plants in October anyway to close up the hoop and plant for winter.

BUT, again, I am not complaining about this. The difference between plants grown in the hoop and outside is staggering. The plants grown under cover are GINORMOUS. They are lush and chunky, even with pruning are several times the physical leafy volume than my outside plants, and their yields are much higher. So far I've limited myself to 2 plants a season—they just get too huge to fit more in there if I want to grow peppers and cucumbers and more—and keep my planned rotation in the beds. I'm still playing around with my varieties: this year I have a plum (the principe) that is outstanding. The second, a Cherokee purple, is my first attempt at a full-size fruit inside. It is healthy and pretty prolific, and I'm looking forward to good eating tomatoes well into the fall. I might try, next year, one of my big paste tomatoes to see how it does. I've also jokingly thought of putting ALL my tomatoes in there some year, ha. I generally grow 14 plants, and I could probably get the same harvest with 7 inside. Maybe one year I will try it.

Varieties grown this year:

Amish paste
Black Plum
Cherokee Purple
Italian Heirloom
Italian Roma
Principe Borghese (pole)
Speckled Roman
Sun Gold (Cherry)

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  1. You make some great points -- I will consider staggering my sow dates next year. Isn't the hoop amazing for tomatoes? Until they get the blight at least. Maybe you need another low hoop -- the conduit hoops are less expensive to build and are moveable. Just sayin'!

    I grow Speckled Roman, too, and love them although they are particularly susceptible to early blight. A new one for me this year was Pompeii from Renee's Garden Seeds. It was very productive in a not so great year, I'm looking forward to trying it in a good year.

    We are contemplating a big re-make of our garden so I am going to make space for a second temporary conduit hoop. I may not always build it, but I want to have a place for it.

    1. It sure is tempting, but I'm not sure I have the space for another hoop, but you should totally go for it! Don't you love revamping your garden? Mine's gone through several reconfigurations and I like being able to add what I've learned to each version. I may try those Pompeii's, I'm still looking for a favorite paste tomato with a good yield.


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