There are so many things I love about summer vegetable gardens, but without a doubt, tomatoes are my favorite. Like, I would arm wrestle Sasquatch for the last tomato in the field.
If you’re a gardener, you probably have a standard list of go-to’s — in the veggie patch, in your house, and in your flower bed. Tomatoes seem so easy to grow, but let me assure you, this green thumb tomato fangirl struggles with consistent tomatoes from year to year.
Last summer, I put in six plants of different varieties. We tilled the soil, amended it with organic tomato fertilizer, pinched off the suckers, and made sure to weave the branches back inside the cages to provide a reliable support structure. Each plant blossomed and small grape-sized tomatoes filled the tomato bed — I bet there were 150 tomatoes at the end of June. But by the end of July, none of those stupid tomatoes had grown or ripened. I gave them to the groundhogs.
This summer I decided to do it differently. As usual, my Victory Garden is a fenced in space with four beds. I rotated the tomatoes to a different square this year and put in my pretty bright red cages. But instead of focusing on keeping the branches inside the cages, I let them do their own thing. They’re like Animal in Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem’s band. I also cut down the number of plants from six to four to give them space to spread out, because it’s likely they were packed too tightly. Whatever the reason, it seems to be doing the trick. The tomato half of the garden looks like Mr. Snuffleupagus this summer, but they’re thriving and I’m not complaining. My tomatoes are the Electric Company of my otherwise orderly Mr. Rogers Victory Garden.
I caught up with my friend, Kathryn Robinson, whom I first met as a student in a creative writing class I teach at Central Carolina Community College, Writing for Young Audiences. She’s the principal consultant and owner of Lumen Strategies, and she’s a big-picture kind of woman. She’s a runner, a photographer, a gardener, and like me, a struggling tomato grower.
“I’ve had two disappointing years,” she said. “This year’s experiments included Better Boy, Cherokee Purple, German Johnson’s, and Romas.”
In the spring, Kathryn took a course through the Chatham County Extension Office, where she learned all about starting vegetables from seed. She’s had success with her squash, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, cantaloupe and purple bell peppers. All of the tomatoes, on the contrary, were started from very small organic plants, and transplanted into her tilled garden field.
One of the best things about gardening is the relative instant gratification. From a mound of dirt, grows small, delicate plants that nourish the body. For my fellow optimistic gardeners, those sprouts nourish the soul, as well. Which is why it’s particularly distressing for these tomatoes to have a mind of their own.
“My tomatoes are so sad,” Kathryn told me. “The plants themselves looked very healthy, and up until about a week ago were producing a lot of fruit. After the groundhogs and my golden retriever picked their share (ugh), the rest of the fruit are just not ripening. They get to a good size, look good for a few days and then start splitting on the bottom.”
I feel your pain, Kathryn. Her moody teenager tomatoes are mostly thriving, but refusing to ripen. It’s probably a conspiracy. Here’s an old-fashioned tip: if you have any tomatoes that jump the vine too early because your hand brushes against it, or pests are getting too pesky, bring them inside and let them ripen on the windowsill.
Are there any tomato whisperers out there? Got any tips for an otherwise expert gardener?
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