April 15 is a red-letter day here in Zone 7. It’s our last expected frost date. And especially in a warm year like this one, it means all the frost-tender crops like tomatoes and peppers can safely go outside!
Actually, since the weather was already so warm (today we’re supposed to hit 90 degrees…good grief), I went ahead and started hardening off my tomato plants two weeks ago, then put them in the ground last week, over a period of four days. Why four days? I have so many that that’s how long it took! What with all the work of digging in compost and fertilizer. But I’m so happy to see my babies in the ground. Because they were already outgrowing their pots (after only six weeks), and I know that once they’re in the garden, they’ll really take off. Last year, it only took them three weeks to reach three feet tall, and after that there was no stopping them…
Most of the tomato varieties I’m growing this year are indeterminate, which means they’re huge, sprawling vines that definitely need staking or caging. I give these guys a lot of room: 5′ x 6′. In a rainy year, you could probably get a higher yield by planting them closer together, but drought is more common around here, and when there’s not much rain, the wider spacing helps them survive, and even thrive. I’m growing three varieties I grew last year, all heirlooms: Large Red, Zarnitsa, and the cherry Riesentraube. (See my post “Last Year’s Vegetable Stars” for more info on those!) I’m also trying three new indeterminate tomatoes:
German Johnson is a popular heirloom in Virginia and North Carolina. The catalog says it’s good for canning (something I want to do more of), and it seems like it’d be good for sauces, as it doesn’t have many seeds.
Eva Purple Ball is an heirloom from Germany’s Black Forest. It’s supposed to perform really well in hot, humid areas, which certainly describes Virginia in the summer. It also boasts “excellent resistance to foliar and fruit diseases.” And Southern Exposure Seed Exchange says it’s one of the “most blemish-free tomatoes [they] have grown,” which also makes it good for canning (since you can’t can blemished fruit).
Old German is a Mennonite family heirloom from the Shenandoah Valley here in Virginia. Its big attraction is its yellow and red streaked coloring. And the fact that the fruits often weigh over a pound!
Finally, I’ve planted one determinate tomato variety: the pear-shaped Hungarian Italian Paste, for making pasta sauce. It only gets 3′ x 4′ for each plant, since they’re so much smaller than the indeterminate plants.
Since I had at least two plants of each variety, I decided to try a little experiment this year. My usual practice is to spread one 40-lb. bag of composted manure on every 30 or so sq. ft. of garden bed–so one bag for each indeterminate tomato plant. But this time I decided to try giving one plant of each variety twice the usual amount of compost, to see if it makes any difference. Since the compost I buy costs only $3 a bag, if the plants bear only a couple more pounds of fruit each, it’ll be worth it. And maybe they’ll bear a whole lot more than that. We’ll see!
I didn’t add more fertilizer than normal, however, because the organic fertilizer I useis potent, and too much can burn plants. I just spread the usual 5 qts. per 100 sq. ft. And then put an extra dusting in the bottom of each planting hole, quickly mixed in with the soil at the bottom of the hole. And I watered each plant in with Miracle-Gro. It’s the only artificial fertilizer they’ll see all year. I’d like to find an organic liquid fertilizer I like, but so far I haven’t had the time. So for right now, this is the one non-organic aspect of my garden.
Also speaking of tomatoes, I found a lovely book at the library a few weeks ago: The Heirloom Tomato, by Amy Goldman. It’s a coffee table book with gorgeous photographs and detailed profiles of hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties–all of which she grew herself, in a vast test plot. It’s already got me thinking that my 15 plants this year are hardly sufficient for a true tomato-lover…