Everyone will eventually confess to one garden mistake or another. Everyone makes them and many learn by them. I am contemplating just such a mistake because of my temptation to do it again. Did I learn? Probably not. Because the temptation is just too great.
Living by the coast has it's advantages. One being that you can successfully garden year round. While other people are putting the garden to bed for the winter, I'm putting in the hardy plants that will last through the wet and the wind and the cold. Some of my best swiss chard is grown in the winter, having sprouted in the late summer and then watered by the winter rains. Cabbages become monsters, brussels sprouts thrive, and cauliflower enjoys a growth spurt as the cabbage butterfly larvae find it too cold to be out (you just have to keep the slugs in check). But there's a trade-off. It never gets really warm here either. So warm season plants are hard to nurture through our cool and breezy summers. Tomatoes are one of these warm season plants.
But in a homemade garden, how can you possibly live without tomatoes? Some people choose to grow only tomatoes as they are the most rewarding plant in the garden - with flavors that outstrip anything purchased at the market. But it's near impossible to get them to be productive if you live by the coast. Case in point - my first year in Elkhorn, I planted some vegetables in the beds in front of the house, just to get a feel for how well things would grow. I planted some sugar snap peas, lettuce, beets, pak choi, broccoli, carrots and a tomato plant, brought home from the nearest Home Depot. Of all the plants and seeds placed into the bed, the sugar snap peas succeeded. The rest languished, or quickly up and died. The carrots that did come up were only 2 inches long after 6 months. But the tomato tried its best. It was small, as I expected a "container recommended" Early Girl to be. It put out some growth, and eventually flowers. But only one flower pollinated - most of them dropped off. I was puzzled. I went out and purchased Golden Gate Gardening again as my last copy was loaned out to someone who never returned it. Then the realities of growing tomatoes by the coast began to sink in. I made lots of notes as the single fruit ripened slowly on the vine. I started making plans and decisions as to how to have tomatoes.
When the fruit was ripe I said to Mr. C. as I was going off to work,
"Please eat the tomato, it looks like it's ready".
"No dear, you should have it, you worked so hard."
When I got home, the tomato was gone. Neither of us got it, but my neighbors dog was seen occasionally stopping by the plant to see if there were any more to scoff.
Year two, armed with more information, a small greenhouse, and lots of tomato seeds, I tried again. By then I was in the Master Gardener program, learning more and more every Saturday. But also rather busy on Saturdays, so working in the garden was harder as time was limited. I couldn't get the seeds to sprout. I tried and tried. Absolutely no luck. It was doubly frustrating as I remembered growing tomatoes from seed when I was a kid. I really wanted to have plants out so I went to the nursery and got a couple of plants to put into the green house. I buried them deep into their pots and for good luck I used my vermicompost around the plants for fertilizer. Two weeks later, the plants were competing with dozens & dozens of tomato sprouts coming up from my vermicompost. I purchased a soil thermometer and realized that the problem was the soil temperature. My first sprouts didn't make it as it was too cold. I weeded out the volunteers and made a note to myself.
Year two's harvest wasn't spectacular. I did get some tomatoes, but was still buying tomatoes at the store. More plans and plots and investment into tools. Thank goodness for friends who shared their bounty or I might have gone completely loony. This time, the big money went into self watering pots and a heating pad for the sprouting trays. Forget visions of sugar plums at Christmas - I was dreaming of dancing tomatoes.
Year 3, I was the coordinator at the Watsonville garden, I had completed my course with the Master Gardeners, and was armed to the teeth with information and fresh resolve. I sprouted 10 different varieties of tomatoes including one that I found growing and fruiting in the hoop house at the Watsonville garden during December. And so I was sure to have enough, I sprouted 6 (or more) of every variety. The heating pad was fantastic at getting the little plants to go in the middle of January. I potted up and transferred them to the greenhouse. I was still figuring I
would loose some, but everything was going swimmingly. They grew nicely getting to be about 6-8 inches tall by March. I had picked out the 5 that I was keeping, and gave a few away - although my more level headed gardening friends were beginning to worry about my sanity. The bulk I took to the Watsonville garden. But Watsonville is warm and the soil has been improved for years by the Master Gardeners who have been working on the project. I only predicted medium sized plants, like the ones I remember from my youth. We planted the tomatoes and put average cages around them. In April, the tomato patch was growing nicely and I was sure to have a good crop.
But what happened next still makes me laugh. Sometimes, when I am so determined to make something succeed, I overshoot a bit. In May, the patch continued to grow, as it did in June. We had late rains and the gophers got a few plants but there was no stopping these tomatoes. They outgrew the cages, crushing them to the ground with their weight. The plants overtook the walkways, rambled and pushed and grew on top of each other. Every week, the now tomato monster was getting bigger and bigger. Fruit was swelling in every direction. I couldn't believe that tomato plants could actually get that big. My hands and arms would drip with pollen as I tried to reach in and grab the ripening fruit. I spent many happy weeks in the early fall harvesting tomatoes and freezing sauce. Loads went to the local homeless shelter. And best of all, a load went to the Garden booth to sell on the Annual Master Gardener Tour. It raised a decent amount of money as the summer here had been very cool and other gardeners were having problems with blight and mildew. My 5 tomato plants at home produced a modest harvest, which I really didn't pay attention to. I gave most of them away to my next door neighbor as a trade for fresh fish that he catches. But there was no way that I could harvest the total amount of tomatoes that came from the monster last year, and the sprouts from the ones that got away will be coming up in the next couple of months. I finally felt as if I had shaken my curse.
It's now February, year four. I have the heating pad in the garage ready to warm the seed trays. I have seeds saved from the hoop house tomato and a new variety that volunteered from the compost and was very delicious. I am still looking for "coastal" tomatoes that will stand up to living outside. And what is alluring to me this year is the offer at Love Apple Farm - come to our spring tomato sowing classes and sprout 24 to 48 plants, chosen from a
selection of 150. Will this be the Return of the Tomato Monster?
I think I better find a canning pot.