Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tomato experiment

Last year, two men at work were locked in a no-holds-barred race to have the first tomato of the season. Every day they discussed at length the walls-o-water, the cloches, the coddling. I found it all a bit tiring. I felt this macho race to be first had little point, since shortly we would all be up to our necks in warm-season crops, with coworkers carefully avoiding us lest they be handed another bag of cherry tomatoes or zucchini. I employed none of my colleagues' soil-warming techniques and wound up only a few weeks behind the mean time, I had radishes.

I'm sure botanic journals are bursting with scientific reports on various approaches to starting tomato plants on a large scale. I like to read nerdy science stuff as much as the next garden geek, but sometimes I wonder what these carefully controlled professional garden trials have to do with my little home plot. I'm not trying to produce acres of productive, disease-free plants, or bring a sturdy fruit to market. I just want my lazy August bowls of insalata caprese. While we're at it, I wouldn't mind enough tomatoes to meet my spaghetti sauce needs for the winter months. Beyond that, is it just production for production's sake? Can you actually ever have too many tomatoes?

Moreover, can you ever have them too soon? By the beginning of September my family has usually tired of the salsas and tomato salads that we were savoring a few months prior. We are looking forward by then to winter squash, root vegetables and fall greens. By starting the season early, am I just creating an early start to the tomato ennui of late summer?

I saw a package of walls-o-water on sale last month, and decided to give them a try. My husband snickered, reminding me of my professed disdain for these contraptions last season. But I bought them, and hence the first tomato seeds were started a few days ago. I am not desperate to be the first with tomatoes on the snack table at work -- I'll leave that to the boys -- so why did I buy the walls-o-water? Mostly, I am just curious. I love to learn new techniques in both the garden and the kitchen. Do they really work so much better than plain-old "transplanting when the soil warms"? Maybe I just don't know what I'm missing out on. I sneered at salad spinners until I tried one, and was immediately converted. I suspect that a few extra weeks of tomatoes will probably not alter my life significantly, but at least the next time I roll my eyes at my competitive colleagues, I can do so from experience. And if my family ever goes deeper into local and sustainable eating, this season extension technique may be the difference between a new salad or yet another bowl of dried beans!

Since I was doing a head-to-head trial of walls-o-water versus my usual transplanting practice, I figured I'd throw in another branch to my research study and wintersow the same seeds. I just placed them in wintersown containers outside. While the wintersowing folks make no claim to earlier harvests, they do argue that the technique yields sturdier, healthier plants. I've never had much problem with tomato plant vigor (knock on wood). Usually, it's the opposite -- they seem to grow into every corner of my garden as soon as I turn my back. By the end of August, I can't keep up with all the tomatoes. Even if the wintersown seeds end up maturing later than the other plants, they can act as replacements should I lose a plant to pest or disease. Somehow I suspect all will do just fine in the end, and I will wind up with even more tomatoes than I usually harvest. Fortunately, I am trying out Opalka paste this year, and a surplus should just mean more days in the kitchen making sauce. Remind me how nonchalantly I wrote that last sentence when I am complaining about a weekend-long canning extravaganza this summer.


  1. OMG, you remind me of me! I have been buried by tomatoes some years. I made every type of tomato garlic cheese bread I could think of, ogave bags of tomatoes to family and friends, bought canning equipment I never used and dropped the into boiling water (to kill them) no just kidding to freeze for paste.

    I have ordered a new one this year called Brandy Boy, a cross between the heirloom Brandywine and one of the Boys. We will see how it does, was not too impressed with Brandywine. Let us know what happens.

  2. You should conduct a side-by-side experiment. I know people also build their own wall-O-water type of thing using milk jugs and pop bottles.

    If it works the same as the commercial item this would give you the chance to introduce something new into the conversation with the competitive colleagues.

  3. what about sun dries tomatoes if you get truly overrun? this is on my list to try this year, especially if I can figure out how to make them into a paste.

  4. Good ideas from all -- @Gatsby's, I too resorted to the freeze method last year. @OneSeed, I too have seen folks use a pop-bottle fort as a homemade WOW -- I will try it! and @JP, sun drieds are a good idea. I have tried in the past but I get hard little nubs, not the pliant kind you can get at the grocery store. I wonder if there is a better variety for drying. I have read about folks make a sun-dried paste as well -- food milling raw tomatoes, spreading the puree on boards and sun drying it. Maybe it is a worthwhile experiment!