Goldilocks Tomatoes


Americans have become spoiled by the year round availability of produce at the supermarket. The tomatoes available in the store most of the year are hardly worthwhile, but there they are nonetheless, waiting for shoppers who have no other option. Summer is the time for homegrown tomatoes, which definitely are worthwhile, however too many Americans appear to carry over the habits they’ve learned from grocery shopping and believe they should be able to harvest tomatoes from their small patch of a few plants nearly every day all summer long. It’s as if they thought someone might be hiding throughout the day near the tomato patch and coming out under cover of darkness to restock their plants with newly ripened fruit, and just enough to satisfy the consumer’s need for the day.


That would be a pleasant scenario, but unfortunately it’s a pipe dream. There are only two factors broadly setting the pace for when tomatoes ripen and in what quantity, and they are the genetics of a determinate versus indeterminate tomato plant, and the weather, particularly temperature. A determinate tomato plant grows to a point of maturity, sets fruit, generally earlier in the summer than other tomato plants, and then goes dormant. An indeterminate tomato plant continues growing, vine-like, throughout the summer until frost, and sets fruit sporadically from mid-summer on, although the fruits borne late in the season as cool weather approaches may not ripen on the vine.

Growing tomatoes in a greenhouse or cold frame is a way to extend the season by exerting more control over growing conditions than can be had by subjecting the plants to nature. Photo by Fredy.00.

Temperature as a determining factor for tomato plants setting fruits and ripening them is important across the board, no matter what type of plant, whether determinate or indeterminate, or whether the grower advertises a particular plant as an early, late, or mid season variety. Nighttime temperatures below 55 degrees are no good, as are daytime temperatures above 85 degrees. Everything else is meaningless if the temperature does not reside within that sweet spot, that Goldilocks zone. Growers of hothouse tomatoes know this better than anybody. Yet year after year home growers select their tomato plants at the garden center each spring with a plan of spreading out the harvest throughout the summer based on type of plant and promises made by the seller of when to expect the harvest to begin.

There will be some variation in growth early in the season when planting a patch of a few tomato plants, and staggering planting dates may be of limited utility early on as well. As summer progresses, though, and hot weather takes over day after day, all the plants will end up near the same stage of growth at the same time, and the poor gardener, whose best laid plans called for perhaps only a few ripe tomatoes each day from June through September, instead finds himself or herself with an avalanche of ripening tomatoes in July and August, or hardly any at all. These are the risks of subjecting our desires to nature’s control, rather than going to the supermarket to buy a lackluster but sturdily dependable tomato.

What to do? If enough space is available, put in more than a half dozen plants, even if that means a potential glut of tomatoes in a bumper year. More plants is good insurance against a bad year and brings the dream of an evenly spaced harvest closer to reality. Put those plants in slightly different locations, varying the microclimate for each plant, rather than subjecting all of them to the exact same conditions, and potentially the exact same problems. Spread them out if there’s space available. Tomato plants should get at least six hours of sunlight each day, but the kind of sunlight matters a great deal. All tomato plants like to get early morning sun to dry the dew off their leaves. In the South, they appreciate shade from the hottest afternoon sun.

John Denver performed the Guy Clark song “Homegrown Tomatoes” for his 1988 album, Higher Ground, and the song then appeared on his 1991 compilation album, Take Me Home, Country Roads.

If not much space is available, put in as many plants as possible without crowding them, which leads to poor air circulation and consequent fungus and blight problems. Use deep containers with adequate drainage, and mount them on wheels to make it easier to take advantage of varying light as summer progresses. Above all, stop looking at the tomato patch as a supermarket produce section where the fruit appears only as required. Outside under the hot sun, through irregular rain showers and storms, and at the mercy of pests and competing weeds, the tomato plants are taking their own sweet time and are subject less to the gardener and more to nature. If it seems like having only two or three plants makes for a Goldilocks garden, where everything has to be just right to get a spread out harvest, or even any ripe tomatoes at all, then diversify and put in more plants in more spaces. What ripe fruits you get will always be better than supermarket tomatoes and well worth the effort, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding takers for the surplus in good years.
— Izzy



From Small Beginnings


Spring is around the corner, and with it comes the urge in some people to sow seeds or buy plants. Arbor Day follows in April, on the 26th, and some folks may be tempted then to plant a tree. Or many trees. In the last 20 years the Chinese and Indians have planted millions of trees in their countries, and NASA has noted from space the greening of those places on Earth. China and India also happen to be contributing greatly to air pollution as they industrialize and their inhabitants adopt a First World lifestyle, and their planting of trees does not entirely offset that, but still the result is better than if they had done nothing.

Rose, Jean Giono, バラ, ジャン ジオノ, (15434937527)
Rosa ‘Jean Giono’, a hybrid tea rose introduced by the French hybridizer Alain Meilland in 1996. Photo by T.Kiya. The Meilland firm created the renowned ‘Peace’ hybrid tea rose in 1935. Hybrid tea roses are undeniably beautiful, but that beauty often comes at a cost in deficiencies in other areas such as disease resistance. It is tempting to resort to various nasty concoctions in order to keep them looking their best. Either find a better way, or don’t grow them at all and seek out hardier heirloom roses grown on their own roots instead.


Live in an apartment with no outside space at all? You can’t plant a full size tree, though there are palms and ornamental figs that fit the bill on a small scale. Growing plants indoors helps clean the air every bit as much as outdoor plants, leaf for leaf. Have a small space outside, perhaps on a sunny balcony? Consider planting one rose bush in a pot to itself that you can pamper like the Little Prince with his single rose, and then cut down to a few short canes in preparation for bringing inside for the winter. Have some outdoor space left over? Plant one or two patio variety tomato plants and add some herbs at their feet.

The point is to do something, and not to allow the scale of global problems overwhelm you into paralysis. People have similar fears about political action, even something as basic as voting. What use is my tiny contribution, they ask. Well, it’s something; it’s better than nothing. Earth Day is also coming up, on April 22, and instead of dwelling on the impossibility of one person saving the entire Earth, it would be more practical to grow at least one plant. Sow a seed, even one as insignificant as a mustard seed. You might discover after a while that in taking one small action to nurture life close to home you have saved more than you imagined possible, starting with yourself.
— Izzy

This is the entire 30 minute Canadian animated film by Frédéric Back that was released in 1987 and won the Academy Award in 1988 for Best Animated Short Film. It is based on a 1953 allegorical tale by the French author, Jean Giono, about a shepherd who sowed tens of thousands of tree seeds in a barren area in the foothills of the French Alps during the first half of the twentieth century.



Grow a Perfect Tomato


To grow a perfect tomato, start with a planter on wheels. You could put your tomato plant in the ground, but you would have to erect a fence to protect it from critters, and you couldn’t control the soil nutrients and watering as well as you could when the plant is in a pot. Place the planter as close as possible to your house or apartment, preferably on a deck or balcony, the idea being to discourage critters, while making it easier for you to tend your plant. The planter needs wheels because your tomato plant needs as much soil as possible, preferably in a deep pot, and that makes the whole contraption heavy. Depending on where the sunlight falls at your place and on your critter situation, you may want to move that planter around a bit.

Now that you have a planter on wheels, preferably a deep planter so that it holds water longer than a shallow one, fill that planter with high quality organic potting soil that has good stuff already in it, like bat guano and worm castings. In order for your tomato plant to stay healthy and productive throughout the growing season, quality potting soil which doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers is the key component. Plant your plant, good and deep, and water it in. Your tomato plant is off to a good start.

Tomato on its stem
A tomato growing on its stem. Photo by tooony.

Once your tomato plant starts growing, you will need to place a cage or some kind of sturdy supports around it before it gets out of hand sprawling all over the place. Some tomato plants are more compact than others, but even they will appreciate support for their fruits when they come along. Now is also the time to consider additional critter control measures if necessary by installing a net or other guard along with the cage or supports. Your tomato plant is of value to you, and it could be to others as well, others who are always watchful and ready to strike the moment the fruit is ripe.

Water your tomato plant deeply and infrequently, rather than shallowly and frequently. You will need to keep an eye on the weather. A rain gauge may help. Too much water is bad, as is too little. The amount and intensity of sunlight affects the amount of water your tomato plant needs. Stick your finger several inches deep into the potting soil, and if the soil is dry and no rain is in the forecast, water your plant well. Inspect your plant weekly for tomato hornworms, more if you see signs of leaf eating. Pick off and discard the hornworms. The same goes for leaves stricken with blight – pick off and discard them.

A ripe and ready perfect tomato. Photo by Letrek.

Once your tomato plant starts bearing fruit, be even more judicious with your watering. Too much water at this point could lead to disfigurement of the fruit, as well as ruining their flavor. Add calcium to the soil, along with an organic fertilizer high in phosphorous. Phosphorous will help the fruits grow and multiply, and calcium will keep them healthy. Relax and watch the fruits of your tomato plant turn from green to pink to red. When the fruits are ready for you, they will separate from the plant with a gentle tug from you. If they won’t come free readily, you can still cut them free at the stem and put them on the kitchen counter to continue ripening over a couple of days. They will be delicious!

Cost per tomato: Between 5 and 10 dollars the first year, cheaper afterward.
— Izzy