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In Iowa: Tomato patch notes from a chemical minimalist

Our favorite crop

CropKing horticulturist Natalie Bumgarner appears among the Torero tomatoes in their greenhouse in Lodi, Ohio, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)
CropKing horticulturist Natalie Bumgarner appears among the Torero tomatoes in their greenhouse in Lodi, Ohio, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

As hard as it is for me to fathom, I have been doing some things long enough and with enough attention paid along the way that, in some less rigorous circles, I might be considered an expert.

Having annually nurtured about 70 tomato plants for the past 32 years, with no crop failures despite floods, droughts, disease and pestilence, I have learned a thing or two about their cultivation, which I herewith offer for consideration as the state’s gardeners begin this week to plant their favorite crop.

Raising tomatoes is like raising pets or children in the sense that you have to give them what they need when they need it and protect them from harmful influences.

I am a chemical minimalist, in the same way I would just as soon not have to take drugs to stay healthy, but there is one chemical I cannot do without — a fungicide to retard the blights and wilts that are the bane of almost every tomato grower.

Notice I said retard rather than defeat. Blight is inevitable. My goal is to sufficiently delay its onset and reduce its severity so that I can retain enough vegetation through the harvest season to protect the fruit from sun scald.

I move my tomato patch around the garden on a three-year rotation so that I am not planting directly into fresh, residual blight. If I had a bigger garden, I would extend the rotation.

I begin about six weeks before actual mid-May planting by digging for each plant a 20-inch hole, which I refill with compost and the loosened dirt. The loosened, enriched soil provides easy passage for rapid root growth, which gets the plant off to a fast, healthy start.

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Around each seedling I place a gallon can with both ends removed. I originally adopted this practice on my late dad’s advice to keep cutworms from felling my young plants.

In the years since, I have never seen a cutworm, but I have found the cans enable the spindly seedlings to expend their energy growing rather than withstanding the wind.

Planting tomatoes is like planting trees in the sense that it is, at the time, hard to visualize how big they will get and how much room they will need to fully develop. Tomatoes ideally should be planted at least five feet apart to allow both air and you to circulate around them.

Because of space constraints, I plant mine four feet apart in double rows so that they can share their surrounding mulch.

As part of my blight retardation regimen, I mulch around the plants with composted leaves and grass clippings, my goal being to blanket the soil so that rain drops can never splatter blight-infected soil onto my plants. I also support them with cages large and sturdy enough to keep their branches from drooping onto the soil.

Because most commercially available cages are inadequate for that task, I made my own from heavy-gauge concrete reinforcing wire — a process that requires considerable cutting (with a bolt cutter) and bending with leather gloves. I made mine 30 years ago, when I was young and strong enough to do it, and it appears most of them will outlast me.

I can fix dry. I can’t fix wet. My worst crops have grown in soggy years (like 1993 and 2008) when blight rages and roots drown. My best have been in drought years (like 1988 and 2012), when timely watering enables the plants to flourish in the heat.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, given that rain falls directly on tomato plants, I would rather slap mine with a hoe than to spray cold water directly on their foliage.

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I treat my tomatoes like house plants, watering each individually with a large watering can with the sprinkler nozzle removed. I pour the water directly into the can at the base of the plant, which allows it to soak directly into the root zone.

To avoid the shock of cold water, I fill five-gallon buckets in the morning and apply the water in the evening after the sun has luke-warmed it. During hot dry spells, each plant will get about two gallons every other day.

I periodically put a little Miracle-Gro in the water because what could a water-soluble, well-balanced, minimum strength fertilizer possibly hurt?

Contrary to the vine-ripened purists, I pick mine as soon as they start showing pink on their bottoms and allow them to finish ripening in the shade and protection of my garden shed. Once they start turning color, they begin to soften, greatly increasing their vulnerability to biting and boring pests.

Though they ripen off the vine, they do so naturally, as opposed to the ethylene gas-induced quasi-ripening to which off-season imported tomatoes are subjected.

Some no doubt would consider the time and effort I expend on my tomatoes to be excessive and far from cost-effective.

I justify it by considering my time in the garden as exercise and recreation rather than work.

My efforts will be fully vindicated the day the real experts, the Amish ladies, hire a driver to haul them past my patch on their annual garden admiration tour.

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