Friday, August 30, 2013

Training tomatoes on a string


Seattle's summers are questionable for tomatoes.

Summer here is reliably dry, and almost generally sunny. But that weather often starts in late June or early July. And here it is, August 28th. The first rains have begun and the nights are closing in again.


Our growing season is short and our nights are almost always cool.

The typical tomato season is like this:


May 1: Plant tomatoes.

Tomatoes sit there for weeks.

Late June: Summer begins. Tomato plants take off.

July: Huge crop of green tomatoes on lush, sprawling plants. Gloat a bit.

August: first tomato ripens. Tomatoes begin shyly blushing red, one by one. I eat one, not quite ripe, pretending it is as rich and juicy as I want. Gloat a bit more.

Mid-August: real tomatoes. Never quite how David remembers them as a boy but plenty good enough.

End of August: first rain

Early September: all tomatoes succumb to late tomato blight.

I have taken to growing my tomatoes in a greenhouse. This year I planted them on red plastic mulch. This is supposed to reflect red light back into the plants and hasten ripening. It certainly helps suppress weeds.

Here are the plants when I poked them through the mulch, around mid-April.

The bricks are my path. They also absorb and release heat to help stablize the temperature from day to night.




Here is one of the plants poking up through the plastic.  

Very gently, I tie a piece of baling twine in a loose slip knot around the stem of each plant.

I use baling twine because it's abundant at Several Gardens Farm. I tie the twine loosely and in a slip knot because the plant will grow. I don't want the twine to choke it.

I tie the other end to the rafter of the greenhouse. 

If I didn't have a greenhouse I would build a support beam instead.


At some point the vines suddenly get energized and start growing. 

The vines put out many shoots in all directions, but if you follow the stem up from the ground you will see that it remains the principle 'trunk' all the way up and the other stems are side shoots.

If you let all the side shoots keep growing they will make lots of green tomatoes. Many will never ripen. 

If the plant is allowed to sprawl, many more will be eaten by slugs.



You must be brave and cut off all the side shoots. They are competing with the trunk for air and light. The plant will be fine and the tomatoes will be better without them. Really.




As summer progresses, gently wrap the stem around the twine. The stem is flexible but not very. Be careful not to break it. The goal is for the twine to support its weight so it can succeed in its upward journey.  

I think of the vine as leaning against the string. Every so often it would slip off if the string didn't keep wrapping around it.

You don't need to - and probably should avoid - elaborate topiary.

If the main stem happens to break, do not panic. The side shoot nearest the top will simply take over.










All summer, as the tomatoes grow, keep trimming off side shoots, gently wrapping the twine around the main stem, and checking to make sure the twine doesn't strangle the stem at any point. The tomatoes are heavy! Their weight could pull the stem till the twine cut into it, so you have to pay attention.

In mid-August, cut off the top of the main stem. After that, keep cutting any shoots that try to become the main stem. You don't want more tomatoes at this point. You want the ones you have to turn red.





Here is my row of tomatoes, like a chorus line, flaunting their ripening goodies.





I feel like I should offer some recipes, but most of mine are very simple.

Salted tomatoes:

Bring a salt shaker out to your tomato plant on a sunny day. Pick a warm tomato. Bite into it. Sprinkle each bite with salt. Eat the whole tomato, bite by bite, out in the sunshine.

 

Pizza soup:

Heat 1 T olive oil in a saucepan. 
Add 2 chopped garlic cloves. When they start to turn golden, add:
4 medium or 2 huge chopped tomatoes
Simmer till tomatoes are soft and juicy
Blend in blender till smooth
Add 1/8 tsp baking soda, 1/2 t oregano, 2 T chopped fresh basil and salt to taste
Blend another 60 seconds
Return to pot and heat to simmer
Just before serving, drizzle with 1 tsp additional olive oil and a light shredding of chopped basil

Serve with breadsticks and shredded cheese to sprinkle on the bowls. 


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