The Tomato System, V1.0

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Things are nervous on our tiny farm. The first hard frost is lurking like a vandal. The season is ending. I can smell it. It’ll be Armageddon for cucumbers and catastrophe for peppers. The zucchini blossoms will all turn black and crunchy. No more basil. No more melons. No more pansies for our salad mix. Fortunately, our tomatoes are protected. They’ll survive awhile longer. But even their end is near. The time has come to take account.

It’s been a long year for us on the farm. And to be totally honest, the amount of energy (and the number of hours) I’ve been able to put in has been waning for a while. I’ve been getting by on good intentions and the grace of my friends. Fortunately, all the hard work we’d done earlier in the year laid a solid foundation and allowed us to coast a bit. Otherwise we’d have augured a long time ago.

With that in mind, looking back on the year, I focus on the positive. I focus on our  plant / soil block sales. I focus on our greens. And I focus on tomatoes.

This was our year to finally learn to grow tomatoes. And while we still have a lot to learn, we’ve come a long way. Our system allowed us to be among the very first growers to have ripe tomatoes at market. We’ll likely also be among the last. Our yields were great and our quality was very good. Of everything we’ve done around here, I might be most proud of the tomatoes. We’ve struggled mightily in the past. It’s good to have turned at least one corner, at least temporarily.

Tomatos_Gheda1

Tomatos_Gheda2

Our half-houses are important to our tomato system (I posted about them a few weeks ago, with construction notes to come), but our method goes beyond them. The real success of our system comes from our trellising. Here’s our system in quick summary:

To start, this year we planted our tomatoes in 30-inch beds, on a 18 inch spacing (next year our soil will be better and we’ll go in at 12-14 inches). Next, we trellis from the base of the plant to the purlins at the top of our half-hoop house, with an excess of twine at the top. We prune our plants to a single vine and attach them to the twine with trellis clips. As the plant grows up, we prune, clip and harvest until it reaches the top of the house. Then, when the tomato can grow no higher, we extend the twine, lowering the plant, coiling and folding the vine at the bottom and providing the plant more room to grow. When we harvest, we also strip the leaves from the bottom of the plant. This provides us bare vine at the bottom which is easier to coil and fold when we need to lower it.

This summer I’ve been fortunate enough to visit quite a few local farms. I’ve looked at all their tomato operations and nobody seems to be using a system very similar to ours. Most field (and more than a few greenhouse growers) don’t trellis at all. Instead, they drive t-bar stakes into the ground at both ends of a row and coil twine a dozen or so times between the posts. The tomato plants are set out below the twine and as they grow up, their viney-mass is trained between the twine coils. On the farms I’ve visited, this system provides good support and easy access. Its downside is that plants can’t grow very high, so ultimately yield is limited. Growers using this system need to put out many more plants than we have room for.

I’m proud of the tomato system we executed this year. That being said, I’m sure after a winter spent thinking about it we’ll tweak it for next year. How do you grow your tomatoes? We never pass on a tip.

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