As those of you who have been reading these newsletters for years know, I have a well-developed weakness for tomatoes. I've grown more than 150 varieties in my home gardens and it is always a day of quiet celebration when the first ripe fruit comes off the vine and into my hand.
Like most folks my age (68), I began gardening at a time when manures were the primary fertilizer and observed the change to synthetic NPK "plant foods" during the 1950's, a time when the postwar chemical corporations were looking for new markets. This was touted as a great leap forward in agriculture, promising greater yields and certainly less odor. And it's true, those three macro nutrients were very effective and continue to be widely used today. They are almost certainly not sustainable and contaminate water supplies, but that's a topic for another newsletter
Home gardeners quickly followed the farmers in adopting the convenient granular and liquid synthetic fertilizers. A standard pattern was to rototill, work in the plant food, and seed. Side-dressing the "heavy feeders" during the growing season was also recommended. This was my normal routine until about age 50, at which time I began experimenting with organic ideas, particularly mulching to hold in moisture and prevent weeds.
The next step was to change from synthetic fertilizers to materials like bone and fish meal, along with rock dust minerals. I can't really say that my yields increased, but there definitely seemed to be improvements in flavor, especially for my beloved tomatoes. I knew it wasn't just my imagination when a neighbor began raving about the taste of a tomato I gave him and it turned out to be the same variety he was growing in his chemical garden. I also noted that my plants had very few disease problems or insect attacks, both of which had been problems in past years. I stopped using pesticides and fungicides.
When I next got into soil microbiology and began testing the effects of specific types of mycorrhizal fungi and their companion bacteria, I had my own great leap forward. The wonderful flavors that came from organic mineral-rich soil were still there, but now my yields went way up as well. When you encourage billions of the right microbial organisms to colonize your soil they digest and produce ideal plant nutrients, and then mycorrhizal fungi transport those nutrients into plant roots in exactly the right proportions. No chemical fertilizer can duplicate the continuous flow of good plant nutrition that comes from a biologically-enhanced garden soil.
This season, my first in Palm Springs, I started my tomatoes on December 20th and set them out on February 11th. (Sorry, those of you back East, but that's the recommended schedule here. I'm told they won't survive the summer heat and low humidity, but I've got some ideas about that as well.) After considerable agonizing, my eight varieties this season are: Big Girl, Pink Girl, Park's Whopper, Pineapple, Black Pineapple, Clear Pink Early, Manitoba, and Glacier. I also have a wonderful sweet small tomato called Basket King growing in a hanging pot. If I had a bit more space, I would have added Lemon Boy, Grushovka, and Siberian - all great-flavored varieties. (The latter two are early, bush-form, and highly productive.)
Manitoba is experimental for me. The rest are favorites from over the years. I want to see which ones do well in this new desert setting. Next year, I plan to go with the 2-3 that do best, plus maybe 4-6 new varieties. Dutchman, Copia, Tiffany, Chapman (!), Black Cherry, and Germaid Red are leading contenders.
The one variety that I consider next to perfect? Clear Pink Early. It only gets about 3 feet high, is easily contained in a small cage, and throws off dozens (yes - dozens) of egg-sized fruit that are as sweet and flavorful as any I've ever grown. Pineapple and Black Pineapple might rank just a notch higher to my taste buds, but they develop huge vines and ripen much later. For the home gardener or farmer's market grower, Clear Pink is simply a remarkable tomato - especially in bio-active mineral soil.
Good growing, my friends,