Monday, September 11, 2017

Simple Things -- Growing Tomatoes in Central New Mexico

Tomatoes by the shed

[I know it's September 11 once again and the whole wide world seems to be in a state of Apocalypse what with all the hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, solar flares and what have you. It's a mess for so many survivors; but so many don't survive. We're all living on the edge. For now, at any rate, some of the simple things mean more than ever.]

Early in the spring I started some Cherokee Purple heritage tomato seeds. I could barely walk due to the joint pain of rheumatoid arthritis, but I desperately needed a project. I couldn't stand the idea of being unable to get around or do anything useful for the rest of my life for one thing, and for another, I felt the need to do something positive, no matter how difficult my personal situation might be.

This project turned more fraughtful than I ever thought it would. And more rewarding.

I've never tried to grow tomatoes from seed in New Mexico and I had no idea what would happen. I've grown tomatoes from plants started in nurseries here with varying success. One year we picked a tomato or two from several plants before they gave up the ghost; another year, the whole crop might have amounted to seven or eight tomatoes. And we considered that excellent. One year, nothing.

I ordered the seeds (1000 of them) from Johnny's in Maine.

When they didn't come after a week and I got no email that they'd been shipped, I became a little concerned and emailed their customer service. Next day I got an email saying the seeds had been mailed, and sure enough, when I went to the post office later, there they were.

What to do now?? I could barely move, and it was still cold, so I decided to wait until I was in better shape before I did anything with the seeds. In a few days, I was able to get around without too much pain, so I picked up several seventy-two cell seed starter trays and an armload of peat pots and starter soil. Then I had to wait another week before I could get the trays ready and plant the seeds.

That day was glorious, sunny and warm and an excellent early March planting day. Or so I thought.

When everything was set up outside--planting trays, water can, bags of soil, bowl of seeds -- I set to work, planting two or three  seeds in each cell, one cell after another, water after planting, and I thought things were going well until a gust of wind came up and the seed bowl overturned into the dirt and gravel next to my work table. I'd planted a hundred or so seeds by that point. The rest of them wound up on the ground.

It took some strategizing -- I couldn't bend down very well, and if I did, it would be difficult to unbend -- but I figured out a way to get most of the seeds along with plenty of dirt and gravel into a larger container, and I set about with tweezers picking the seeds from the dirt and debris.

It took the rest of the day, but I managed to rescue about 350 seeds. The rest of them had disappeared.

I figured that would be enough in any case. What would we do with a thousand tomato plants? We planned to give away several dozen plants and keep maybe a hundred for test purposes.

So over the next few days, I got the rest of the starter trays planted, and I set seeds into numerous peat pots. The laundry room and kitchen would be serving as hot houses for immediate purposes, but I needed an outdoor greenhouse for the longer term.

A fellow in town has one that would be just right but I had no way to transport it, and neither did he. Besides, he wanted $1000 for it, and that was more than our budget. Way more. So I decided  on improvising something with shelves and plastic drop cloths -- the heavy kind.

It seemed to work pretty well, and after I got the improvised greenhouse put together the starting trays and peat pots went outside, only to be brought in again when the temperatures were slated to fall into the twenties.

That only happened a few times after planting, but with my mobility issues, getting the plants inside the house from the greenhouse took some... doing. But it got done.

Most of the seeds sprouted by the end of April -- seemed late to me, but oh well -- and after they grew tall and sturdy, it was time to transplant to peat pots from the trays of cells. Supposedly, only one plant from the two seeds was to be transplanted; the other was to be composted. In some cases, I transplanted both plants to the same peat pot just to see what would happen.

Ultimately we had about 175 peat pots, some with two or sometimes three plants, close to three hundred plants altogether.

Some didn't do well, and those wound up in the compost. Many did very well, and I had to think about the final transplanting to containers. We've learned not to grow anything in the ground around here, though I suppose we could. It would just be more difficult. We'd have to heavily amend the soil, correct the pH, fertilize, etc, and even then, there would be no guarantee. The farmer up the road has his own wells and says he even has to acidify the water (using vinegar!) in order to make it suitable for irrigation.

At any rate, we use containers and pots and Miracle Grow potting soil for our tomatoes. We have a lot of pots of varying sizes and kinds accumulated over the years. This year, I picked up more, including several galvanized tubs.

We also bought two Cherokee Purple plants from Bonnie. As a test.

The Bonnie plants were put in large terra cotta pots with tomato cages, the rest were put in different sizes and kinds of pots and containers with as many as six plants per container. We're always told to put one tomato plant per pot or container but that's all. I decided to try for more to see what happened.

The Bonnie plants set fruit first toward the beginning of July, but after the first blossoms, there were no more fruits on those plants until mid August. The plants from seed didn't set fruit until the end of July and the beginning of August, but there were abundant tomatoes on the  plants, and most of them are still setting fruit this late in the season. The Bonnie plants are not. Each had about six tomatoes (some with blossom end rot) and that was it. The others have had anything from one to ten tomatoes each so far and most are setting new fruit daily.

We gave away about 45 plants and have kept about 50.  We had more than 60 but some became ill with various tomato scrofulae, so I pulled them out and threw them away. The ones that have done the best, interestingly, are those that were planted six to a container. They don't have tomato cages, though four containers have simple frameworks that can help support the plants. The plants, too, help support one another.

Other containers don't have frameworks, and the plants have curved down with the weight of the tomatoes, but that doesn't seem to be a problem as long as the tomatoes are kept off the ground -- which seems to be easy enough to do.

We've harvested about 30 tomatoes so far. I pick most of them green and let them ripen off the vine, but some were left to ripen on the vine, and truthfully, I can't tell the difference in flavor between vine ripened and those picked green.

One has been gnawed by hoppers

We've given away about half the ones we've harvested. That will probably be the case through the rest of the harvest season.

We haven't seen any tomato worms this season (they may be there, we just haven't seen them) but we do have grasshoppers, and they seem to enjoy munching on tomato leaves -- especially fresh growth -- and they have completely eaten two young tomatoes. Yes, they ate the whole things. They have chewed on a few others, but the damage is very slight, so we're not worrying too much about them. As anyone who's tried to knows, grasshopper control is very difficult. We've used NoloBait repeatedly and the numbers of grasshoppers have declined but there are still plenty of them. I think they're wise and refuse to eat the NoloBait.

Tomato plants take a lot of water, and I think that's something people attempting to grow them don't fully understand. They say that tomatoes grown in containers need more water than you think -- about a gallon a day under "normal" conditions (little wind and relatively high humidity -- 30% +)  Under dry and often windy conditions such as is "normal" in Central New Mexico, a full grown container tomato plant can require two gallons or more water each day. Sometimes our plants -- which are watered no less than once a day -- get dry and wilty. The problem, I've found is that even a heavy watering may not penetrate all the way down the container and the lower parts may be almost completely dry. If the plants dry out, the tomatoes may be susceptible to blossom end rot. A few of our tomatoes were afflicted, but even then, the un-rotted parts were edible.

After my second Rituxan infusion in May, I was able to get around much better, and that made caring for the tomatoes a joy. While the season isn't over yet, I'm very happy with the results so far, and I'm thinking that if I am able to do this again next year, I'll grow as many as I can for my own enjoyment and to share.

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