Island tomatoes … growing veggies on an island is no easy task – Coastal Illustrated


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Mother Nature makes growing great veggies on our coastal barrier island a challenge. If I were to tell you the past 10 years of organic gardening has made me the guru of veggie growers, I’d be lying. A more honest response would be to say I have struggled with: • erratic temperatures and rainfall swings from drought to torrential downpours• poor sandy soils that seem to gobble organic matter and are always needy
• high pH in the irrigation water and often in the soil itself causing nutrient deficiencies• disease and insects that no organic method ever controls• insect populations that multiply due to mild winters• an ever-increasing number of harmful soil nematodes due to long growing season, stressful climatic conditions, and sandy soils• weeds, weeds and more weeds that sprout overnightAnd yet, despite the above list, I love gardening and growing plants. Those of you born with the gardening bug will certainly understand. Moving into the arena of growing vegetables, while maintaining a landscaping background has fueled my passion by adding the dimension of “farm to table.” There is nothing like homegrown veggies! All my vegetable gardens have included plantings of annuals, perennials, flowering fruit trees and wildflowers. Not only do these additional plantings bring in interest and color, they invite the presence of many beneficial predator insects (i.e. lacewings, ladybugs, praying mantis), species of pollinators (native bees, bumblebees and honeybees), butterflies and hummingbirds. And when most of the vegetable side of the garden succumbs to the high heat and humidity of late July, the ornamental plants continue on.Over the years, I’ve grown a variety of spring/summer vegetables. They each come with their own disease and insect issues. The trick is starting seed as early as possible in the spring and getting the plants to maturity before heat and humidity become severe. This is particularly important with tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. Now, let’s look at growing a great tomato on a barrier island. Here are the steps I take.• Obtain samples for a soil test, to see if there are any soil nutrient needs before starting to plant. If so, I work in organic matter mixed with a slow-release certified organic fertilizer like Greensand, a rich source of glauconite obtained from ancient sea beds high in iron, potassium and magnesium. I also want to see where the pH is. Tomatoes grow best in a pH of 6.2-6.5. My garden often is in the pH 7.5 range, requiring me to use an ammonium- or urea-based fertilizer to lower the pH while providing needed nitrogen.
• Purchase seeds from a quality seed source and look for those with disease resistance. Johnny’s Select Seeds has always been a proven source of reliable seeds.• Plant seeds as early as Feb. 1. In the last 8 years, I have had a greenhouse at my disposal. Retirement from the farm ended that. This year, I started tomatoes in seed trays indoors under lights. I transplanted the seedlings into four-inch pots, then set them outdoors during the warm days, returning them indoors at night or during cold snaps. I planted the tomatoes outdoors into the garden in mid-March, allowing four feet between each plant.• Rather than using tomato cages, this year I strung up each plant attaching a nylon string to a ground anchor up to an overhead framework that was assembled with round hollow metal pipes from The Home Depot. Although this method is recommended for indeterminate tomatoes, I strung all my tomatoes. That’s because my plants got a bit jumbled in the planting and I didn’t know which varieties were planted where. Normally, you don’t string the determinate varieties. They only grow three feet to four feet in a season.• I mulched the ground with fresh pine chips, leaving only a one-foot wide area of ground directly around each row of plants.• I kept all plants to a single or double leader, pruning away all side shoots. Pruning out all the side shoots means less tomatoes but supposedly, the ones that grow will be larger and healthier. I now know plants can be within two feet of one another when using this string method rather than the four feet I allowed.• Every few days, I clip the growing shoots to the string, remove new side shoots and some of the bottom foliage to keep it away from the soil. This is to prevent any existing fungal spores of early blight hanging around in the soil from last year from splashing on to the plant. However, the existing leaves started to exhibit curling. With research, I learned the leaf curling of the existing leaves was because I was pruning away too much foliage. The solution – slow down on the pruning of the lower leaves and let the plant recover a bit.• I make sure the plants are watered evenly and consistently. Depending on the weather, a tomato plant which is setting fruit can consume up to two inches of water per week! If water supply is inconsistent, the fruit will crack and/or split.• As fruit began to set, I took a foliar analysis of the tomato plants, keeping samples from different cultivars separate. Why did I take leaf samples? The leaf color was off. Tomato plants often will show deficiencies in calcium, magnesium and potassium, which all affect the fruit quality. A successful tissue test requires 10-15 entire leaves including the petiole, not just a leaflet. Tomatoes have compound leaves, so you need to take the whole leaf where it is attached to the main stem. It’ll be about a foot or more in length. Choose the leaves that are about the fourth or fifth down from the growing tip. Older leaves will store excess nutrients and the test might show no nutrient problems while new leaves will still be taking up nutrients and tests would show nutritional deficiencies. I usually only have one foliar test done during the growing season unless I feel the need to take a second one. In large scale commercial productions, tests are done at three stages: at first flower, two weeks to three weeks later as fruit is rapidly developing, and at first harvest; they may also be continued every two weeks through the growing season.We’ve been enjoying tomatoes for about four weeks now. There are far less than the past growing seasons when I used cages allowing the plants to grow new shoots willy-nilly all over the place.The tomatoes are about the same size and have the same delicious flavor they always have had. I had hoped blight would have been less of a problem, but it is still persistent. It appears the plants will be gone as usual by the end of July. On the positive side, the family farm garden in Ohio is just starting to produce them and we head there next week.

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