Hello again fellow gardening enthusiasts! We are finally at that time of the year when things are really starting to happen in the gardens.
In January we talked about rose pruning and their care. Last week we cut our first beautiful roses along with some sunflowers. Sunflowers are a staple here at Sunshine Care Assisted Living Community. We are nestled in the Green Mountains of Poway CA and our logo is a sun, but I see a sunflower. Cut flowers put a smile on all the faces of our residents, caregivers and staff, especially fragrant roses and knock-out sunflowers.
Cool season crops like broccoli and cauliflower are still pumping out delicious heads. In fact, last week we harvested a Snow Crown Cauliflower head that weighed 4 lbs. I was so inspired, I thought I would test the calendar and break the “rules” and plant some more. Lettuce is everywhere. But little by little the rows of cold crops have changed to rows of warm season veggies. The big boys are starting to strut their stuff and getting off to a great start. We will have our first pick of zucchini this week. Cucumbers and green beans are starting to bloom. Peppers are being planted and just waiting for a bit more heat. The stars of the warm season veggies, TOMATOES, are absolutely gorgeous. So let’s talk ‘maters; Lycopersicon Esculentum. Tomatoes have a special place in my heart due to the fact I was a grower in Baja California for twenty years and they were our main crop. We would pack over a million boxes a year of these babies. Thousands of acres of tomatoes would paint the coastal hills of the San Quintin Valley in Baja Ca Norte. Starting in May and through December, semis would fill the highway up to the Tijuana border with tomatoes from our packing shed, and all of our neighbors. We grew them conventionally, but now on a miniscule scale I get to experience everything again, but organically.
Heirloom tomatoes are the talk of the town these days and have been crowned the number one garden-grown vegetable in the USA. I, on the other hand, am addicted to the usual red, round, delicious and common tomato-due to my roots. I feel our residents take better advantage of these, since whatever doesn’t make it in their salads and sandwiches, ends up in soups and marinara for the five months we don’t harvest tomatoes. We harvested over two tons of tomatoes last year and the final container of marinara will run out just as we start the picking season at the end of May. We get some of our residents in the harvest action and they love it!
So let’s hit the high points.
As we do with all our veggies here at Sunshine Care, we make fluffy beds incorporating with our rototiller, composted chicken manure, worm castings, organic compost and an all purpose fertilizer such as Dr. Earth’s 4-4-4. If you don’t have the benefit of a rototiller, get out your shovel and flip the soil. Add your amendments, flip again and rake smooth to form beds.
Irrigation set-up and planting
All our beds use drip tape or soaker hoses. We run them down the middle of the bed and in the case of tomatoes, we plant them in a single line, 18” apart, a couple inches from the drip line. All transplants are grown from seed in our greenhouse and usually take 5-6 weeks from sowing to transplanting.
When the plants are about a foot tall and the first hand of flowers is visibly starting to form, it is time to prune. In our commercial fields, ON THE COAST in Baja, we would remove all leaves and suckers below the first shoot under the first hand. This opens up the bottom of the plant and aids in aeration. When you prune like this, your size will increase and you will have less fruit. Commercially, size is the name of the game. Here in Poway, we are about 15 miles inland from the SoCal coast. Temperature fluctuations are more extreme and sunburning of the fruit is an issue. Consequently, I leave from 2-3 suckers below the first hand and remove everything below. I sleep better knowing my plants will eventually have more foliage to hide the fruit from the sun, and still yield lots of good sized fruit. Really big fruit also lends itself to possible cracking of the fruit when they mature. Again, large swings from maximum and minimum temperatures in the day, lead to fruit cracking. On the coast, this is less of a problem.
At this point you are ready to stake or pole-up your tomatoes. We use conventional tomato stakes and place them next to the tape with two plants between stakes. Our stakes are 6’ tall, ¾” thick and 1½” wide with a point to go into the ground. Pound them in about a foot and you are ready to set your first string. Wrap the tomato twine around the first stake, go down one side of the tomato line then back the other side. Depending on how tall your variety grows you will continue to add string lines as the plant grows. Usually a string will be placed about every foot of plant growth. If you just have a few tomato plants in your garden, you probably should opt for tomato cages to keep plants off the ground and to grow upright. All these tools can be found at your local home and garden center.
Pest and disease control
Tomatoes are host to many pests and diseases. I will touch on a few of the most common problems. If you have a problem I don’t seem to cover here, shoot me an e-mail and a photo if you have one. Any salesman at your local garden store should be able help also.
Sucking insects such as aphids and leafhoppers can vector viral diseases as well as weaken your plant by spreading their dewy excretions all over your plant. Insecticidal oils and soaps do a fine job controlling these problems. You just need to check your plants and hopefully spot spraying will be enough. I prefer soaps because oils can burn at high temperatures.
Tomato hornworm, beet armyworm, cabbage looper and tomato fruitworm can all be easily controlled with BT (bacillus thuringiensis). They need to ingest these bacteria, and then they die. Spraying every 10-14days during the hot time of the year should eliminate these foes. Cutworms can attack your seedlings early on, so tossing a little Sluggo Plus around your newly planted seedlings will help tremendously.
These little critters are hard to spot until lots of damage has occurred. Lower leaves will start to turn brown, and then gradually they move up the plant. KEEPING DUST OFF YOUR TOMATO PLANTS is the key. They like hot weather and sulfur helps, but can burn your plants when temperatures are in the 90s.
Bacterial Speck and Spot form greasy looking black spots on the foliage then eventually your fruit. This occurs at the beginning and the end of the year when the weather is cool and damp. Copper sprays like Liqui-Cop do a great job
Early and late blight of tomatoes can occur early and late in the season. DUHH- - - !
Early Blight can also be controlled with copper sprays and look like brown fingerprints on the leaves during the cool part of the season. Late blight infections quickly spread from leaves to petioles and stems. When the weather is mild and humid, this fungus produces rings of mycelium and spore-forming structures on the undersides of infected leaves. This disease spreads like wildfire. I personally have witnessed hundreds of acres of tomatoes going down with this disease in a couple of days. I really haven’t suffered any damage here with my two seasons of experience. I noticed a few leaves last season and picked them off and tossed them far away. Sulfur and copper might be your only tools with this killer. The best weapon is a change in weather. Good luck with that one.
This is just a short list of possible problems. If you are confronted with something different, give me a call or seek advice from your local farm advisor and home and garden dealer.
Basically there are two worlds of tomatoes - determinate and indeterminate types.
Indeterminate varieties grow and grow (up to 10 ft) and give a few fruit at a time over a long period of time. Most heirloom and cherry types are indeterminate. When grown in greenhouse and shadehouse structures, constant pruning is performed, leaving basically leaves and uniform-sized fruit. This would be suicidal here where sunburn is an issue. We just perform the basic pruning as mentioned earlier. Not as much disease resistance has been bred into these hybrids and heirlooms are especially lacking. Grafted tomatoes are becoming increasingly popular where indeterminate varieties are grafted to vigorous and disease resistant rootstock.
Determinate varieties give the grower a more concentrated set of fruit over a shorter period of time. These will grow to 4 or 5 ft, give a bunch of fruit then poop out. I like this concept. Just be ready to can tomatoes or make sauces and soups
Here are a couple of each type that we grow at Sunshine Care, and a couple of heirloom types our children in our intergenerational program grow in their garden.
Celebrity - This high yielding determinate variety is widely adaptable and vigorous with delicious globe-shaped firm red 8 oz. fruit. It was selected as the 1984 All American Tomato of the Year. The fruit are crack resistant and the plant is very disease resistant. Root knot nematodes are a major problem when growing tomatoes in the same area season after season. This variety has nematode resistance, but move your tomato plants around if possible each year. Plants will grow around 4’ and give fruit in about 72 days.
BHN 1021 - Another great yielder of delicious 8-16 oz fruit. The fruit is a more flat-round type. Plants will be around 3-4 ft tall and give fruit in about 76 days. It’s an excellent slicer for those sandwiches. Also, it is nematode resistant.
Early Girl - This reliable and prolific indeterminate variety gives the most beautiful fruit I have ever seen. The size of the fruit is smaller (4-6 oz). It is extremely early with fruit production in 50-60 days and will grow to 9-10 ft. There is not much disease resistance with this variety, but definitely have some in your garden. TASTY!
San Diego - Obviously a well-adapted plant for San Diego County. It is a very vigorous indeterminate with fruit up to 12 oz. Plants will get up to 6 ft tall. I can’t find any information on its disease resistance, but we have never experienced any problems with it here. Expect fruit in about 70-80 days.
Green Zebra - Though technically not an heirloom variety, this indeterminate is often classified as one. It is a delicious tart and tangy variety for salads. It is ripe just as the green fruit develops a yellow blush accentuating the darker green stripes. If left too long on the vine, the fruit will become mealy in texture. The fruit size is small, 2-4 oz, perfect for slicing into wedges.
Cherokee Purple - This unusual indeterminate variety was one of the first “black” types. It is a true heirloom beefsteak variety with full flavor. It’s been around for over 100 years and has deep purple fruit with a red hue. The dense, juicy fruit can get up to 16 oz. with green shoulders in about 70-80 days. By the way, the Cherokee Indians cultivated this variety.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds has all these varieties except the San Diego variety. Ask for it at your local home and garden center.
In closing, whether you grow any of these types or others, just remember how that first tomato tastes that you have toiled to produce, puts a smile on your face with pride. They are the true star of the garden. Imagine what the world would be like without salsa, marinara and tomato soup. BLTs would be just BLs. How sad!
Call me for a tour of our gardens or check out one of our monthly garden lectures on the 3rd Saturday of each month. On April 21st at 10:30 am, we have an expert in the world of heirloom tomatoes coming to speak here at Sunshine Care. Check out our website www.sunshinecare.com or give me a call for more info.
Get those tomatoes planted!!
Click on our website www.sunshinecare.com or call me anytime for more info or a personal tour.