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A Time of Tomatoes

Summer is a good time for me. The crush of planting season orders has slowed down, and my vegetable garden can be given more attention.

I have five large in-ground beds in my greenhouse. One is permanently devoted to strawberries, leaving four available each summer for optional crops. At our elevation (4300 feet) in Central Oregon's high desert, we often get hard frosts in July and August so a greenhouse is a must if you want tender crops. And I do.

Typically, I devote two beds to corn and two to tomatoes, with bush beans and a couple zucchinis squeezed in around the edges where they can flop over into the pathways, but this year my list of "to try before you die" tomatoes had reached the point where they had to be given a third bed. Sorry, corn.

I decided to go with a striped theme, and consequently have 23 different varieties with names like Marvel Stripe, Red Zebra, and Striped German. Some of the 23 are heirlooms, while others are hybrids. The sizes range from beefsteaks to cherry types. My favorite must-grow Pineapple has been joined by its never-tried cousins Golden Pineapple and Black Pineapple. Ah, the anticipation!

All, of course, are being grown using bio-organic techniques. I lightly scratched in some compost and a little slow-release organic fertilizer, plus volcanic minerals to provide essential minor and trace elements. I never till more than 2-4 inches deep to avoid disturbing the earthworms and other valuable bio-life in the soil. Each plant's roots was given a dusting of mycorrhizal fungi spores at transplanting time. Nothing else besides water will be added all season long.

This growing of many different varieties has a purpose beyond simply taste satisfaction, (although that would be reason enough, mind you). I've observed that different varieties respond differently to biological methods. Heirlooms and older hybrids generally all thrive and produce wonderful yields with my low-input approach, but newer varieties often struggle. Happily, some great-flavored older hybrids such as Big Girl, Park's Whopper, and Lemon Boy have been amazingly productive in my garden with little or no fertilization - nearly every blossom sets fruit.

I would speculate that the newest types of tomatoes have been bred and selected to be grown in lifeless soils with chemical fertilization routines. The presence of mycorrhizal fungi, beneficial bacteria and other natural plant-tending organisms is probably no longer as necessary to them. This is convenient for commercial growers, but I wonder how long it will work. At some point, the degradation of soil health may reveal what the ignorable word "sustainability" really means.

I hope that what I'm learning may prove helpful for both home gardeners and market growers some day, assuming that I ever get around to writing that how-to book on bio-growing. And maybe next year will be the year that I grow only my two or three all-time favorite types and stop testing many different varieties...but what if there is another Pineapple out there and I never get to taste it?

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

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