Sunday, September 24, 2017

Simple Things: "The Garden"

Over the years, we've tried growing things here with middling success. It's a challenge. This is the high plains/high desert after all. Drought. Altitude. Highly alkaline soil and water. Limited growing season. All this and more interfere with growing things.

Yet just down the road from our place is a very successful 160 acre farm known far and wide for its excellent sweet corn and pinto and bolita beans. Corn, supposedly, can't grow at this altitude, but somehow they manage to do it. Their beans are widely recognized as "the best." They also grow squash, pumpkins, melons, onions, potatoes, berries, beets, and other vegetables, some more successfully than others. Though their corn and beans are spectacular, their other offerings vary in quality. Despite the success of their farm, they face many of the same challenges backyard gardeners do in this area.

This year I set out a lot of tomato plants and some wild flowers, all of them in containers. Though there were losses, all in all, it's been a pretty successful season. We've had tomatoes every day; the flowers are not as abundant as I hoped, but they are doing OK. It's been very dry this season with too little rain. Overall, for the year, rain totals are pretty good, but the monsoon season was less than ideal.

Consequently, the plants had to be watered every day, even on days it rained. That's fine if you can do it and you have the water, but many people can't and don't.

Our tomato losses had to do with several problems one ordinarily has with tomatoes:

  • 1) blossom end rot, which some say is due to inadequate water. Others suggest it's due to overwatering. Who knows? As a rule, only a few tomatoes were affected -- if any were -- on any given plant, and even those that had blossom end rot were edible after the rot was cut away. (Ew! But actually it works fine.)
  • 2) hoppers. This year we had somewhat fewer hoppers than in previous years, but still there were many of them. They hatched in waves. Most of the young-uns died before their first molt, but there were plenty of survivors. At first, they didn't notice the tomatoes. There are "sacrifice" plants in front (I don't know the name of them, but they grow wild and have small orange flowers -- and the hoppers love them). Once they noticed the tomatoes, though, they came over to the plants and nibbled. They were acting very protective of them, at least from my point of view. They would nibble on the leaves and sometimes on the fruit, but mostly they just seemed to stand guard. The damage they caused the tomatoes was, overall, rather slight. So we didn't fret too much over hoppers. I didn't use NoloBait this year, so we may wind up with a lot more hoppers next year. Quite a number of preying mantis came to call and were seen feasting on the hoppers, too. Nature's balance, eh?
  • 3) tomato hornworms. They actually did only minor damage this year. I managed to pick them off one by one before they could do too much mischief, and there weren't that many in any case. They don't just eat the foliage, they eat the fruit, too, so we lost some -- maybe half a dozen tomatoes -- to the pesky green caterpillars.
  • 4) leaf curl. It can be deadly, but so far it hasn't been. I managed to trim off most of the affected leaves before the condition consumed entire plants.  I'm just now noticing mosaic virus on one plant, and it can turn into a severe problem too.

It's getting late in the season though, so I'm not too worried about the mosaic. The plants can't survive freezing conditions, so when we get the first freeze-- probably in October sometime -- that will be it. We have had an abundant crop, really quite remarkable for us. Most plants have had plenty of fruit, and we've eaten tomatoes every day for over a month. We even had some delicious fried green tomatoes and will probably have more before the season ends. Ms Che even wants to try pickling the unripe tomatoes.

I tried different ways of growing them. They're all in containers, but the containers differ considerably. Some are large. Some are small. Some are deep. Some are shallow. Some have one plant, others have as many as six.

They are all growing in Miracle-Gro potting soil -- which actually might be a bit too rich for them. It took eleven large bags to fill all the containers so we're talking a bit of expense for soil. Once the plants die back, I'll empty the containers and ready them for use with new potting soil next year.

I wish we could successfully compost here, but so far we haven't been able to. No worms for one thing, and it appears there's very little active soil bacteria. We had a compost pile going for a couple of years, but all that really happened was that its contents petrified. Oh, and the seeds that were supposedly being composted germinated and for a time, before the hoppers got them, lush melon plants covered the pile. It was pretty funny. In other words, there was no decomposition at all.

I'm intrigued with  the potential of humanure, using human excrement in the compost. Needless to say... it's challenging just to think about. But those who do it swear by it. The problem may be with the apparent lack of soil bacteria. If there's nothing in the soil to break down the excrement and sawdust -- or whatever other organic material is included in the compost -- one must wonder at the result. If there is one -- other than petrefaction.

The Garden is sort of randomly placed this year. Containers are scattered on the west and north and I can't say that exposure has had much of an effect on the plants. I started growing some things on the south side of the garage, but they didn't last. The hoppers got the shoots and the few pitiful survivors dried out one hot day and never recovered. Some neighbors grow everything under shade, and that may be the way we have to approach gardening on the south side. One neighbor has a wonderful hoop house, but said that the heavy plastic covering wasn't enough to protect the plants from the sun, and they had to cover the top part of the house with green tarp material, and even then, it was too bright for some plants.

I've found  that growing multiple tomatoes in one large container is the best way. They don't have tomato cages, but they have simple frameworks that help support the plants and the plants themselves help support one another. I assume that's how they might grow in the wild.

The plants in tomato cages actually didn't produce very well at all. The plants that bent under the weight of the tomatoes actually produced very well and I found a number of ways to keep the fruit off the ground -- including using the seedling cells as supports as well as bent wire fencing pieces we had lying around the place.  In a couple of cases, the bent branches broke away from the main stalk. As long as there was some connection remaining with the stalk, I supported the branch with a stick or what have you and the tomatoes were fine. One time the entire branch broke from the stalk, so I put it in a gallon jug of water. So far, it with its budding tomatoes is doing fine, but it is the one showing signs of mosaic virus. I keep it well away from the other plants.

I have most of the materials I need for a mini-greenhouse, and I expect to get it done sometime this fall. If I'm able to, I'll try to start seeds again next March and we'll start again.

UPDATE: One day's harvest.


  1. Hey Che,

    I do admire the vast number of tomato plants that you are producing. You know how to farm! We have had some good tomato crops. I've never done more than six plants. Three are always in my take on the tomato box, the tomato triangle. The latest one is a six foot equilateral triangle made out of Douglas Fir. I dig it out and keep it patched up and painted. The biggest threat other than snails is the infamous Tomato Hornworm. So we always take one year off between crops.

    I think I have a simple solution to blossom end rot. It's calcium. Just drop two or three Tums in the soil around each plant every two or three weeks. It absorbs into the soil as you water. I have not seen any blossom end rot whatsoever since we deployed this method. Any source of calcium in the soil would do as well.

    1. Well, thanks. But no. The farmer is down the road -- and he doesn't grow tomatoes. I'm not sure why. They have a terrific greenhouse/hoophouse, but it's been empty for a couple of years. They said they stopped using it because of disease. They used to grow tomatoes in it, but no more. Not sure why though. Their farm is highly regarded for the crops they do grow, especially sweet corn and beans, but it's been a long haul.

      As for your own tricks and techniques, wow. Never heard of Tums for calcium in the soil, but it makes sense, doesn't it? There seem to be quite a few theories about why tomatoes get blossom end rot. We've only had a few tomatoes affected, though out of dozens and dozens -- now looks like hundreds -- grown. We don't have snails, yay. And it looks like I picked off most of the hornworms.

      I've added a picture of today's harvest -- so far. I expect to pick more this afternoon.