Lines From the Vine

Lines From the Vine

By Becky Zelinski —

Tomatoes are probably one of the most popular vegetables people grow. However, they can also be one of the most challenging. I know many of you grow them but depending on what you’re growing and where you’re growing it, our results won’t likely be the same. Also, because every year is different and most gardeners have their own style, there’s always something to learn.

This year, I am experimenting with 32 varieties of tomatoes. Why do I have so many you ask? Because I grow seedling transplants to sell and I want to learn about the habits and attributes of the plants I sell, and figure out which ones to grow in the future. I have heirloom and hybrid slicers, plums and cherries. Some I’ve grown before and some I have not. I’ve noticed a few interesting things thus far this year so thought I’d share some of my observations.

Pruning – if you watched my video, you already know there are some benefits to pruning. You also know that it takes some time and dedication. I’ve discovered some of the varieties are much more difficult to tame than others and will be making more observations on those that require less pruning. If they turn out to have other good growing habits, I’ll likely stick with the ones that require less pruning in the future. It appears that all of my varieties have benefited from pruning as they are largely, shapely and plentiful.

A real sucker! One of my long-time favorites is Costuluto Florintino. It’s beautifully lobed and plentiful; however, it’s growing like a weed and requiring as much pruning as a cherry tomato. If you’re familiar with the tomato, you probably know that you generally only get 1-2 good slices from each tomato. Therefore, even though this one ranks high in beauty and bounty, it ranks low in maintenance and practicality.

Size Matters: weighing in at 1.5 lbs., Abe Lincoln is the biggest tomato I’ve grown so far this year. Almost every tomato on this vine is about 1-2 lbs. They’re bigger than Hawaiian Pineapple, Beefsteak, Brandywine and Hungarian Ox Heart – all of which are quite large. It’s also meaty and juicy. Abe is honestly going to be a keeper.

New favorite: it’s still early but so far my new favorite is Gin Fizz. This is a beautiful yellow and orange slicer similar to Hawaiian Pineapple in color and size. However, unlike its heirloom ancestor, it has a great resistance package. It’s also earlier and plentiful. I planted this tomato approximately 30 days after all of the rest (because of seed availability) and it was the first to produce. The seed is from Osborne Quality Seeds out of Washington. It was recently named one of the top 24 tomatoes for 2020 by American Vegetable Grower. I’m going to say Aloha to Hawaiian Pineapple and get Gin Fizzy with it in the future.

Made in the Shade – because my garden is in Paso Robles with summer temperatures often blazing, a few years ago, I started growing my tomatoes under shade cloth. Tomatoes shut down when prolonged temperatures are more than 85 degrees. Hot temperatures can also lead to poor pollination. But under the shade cloth, mine keep cool and keep growing. The shad cloth can also help avoid sun scald on pruned vines.

But I’ve also noticed another interesting thing over the past two years: my tomatoes have little to no tomato hornworm pressure or bird damage. There are other things at play here and it’s not an valid experiment since there are other variables; however, my hypothesis is that birds attack fruit they can see from the air and since they can’t see the tomatoes, they don’t bother them. Likewise, the moth that lays the hornworm larvae also can’t light on the top of the tomatoes where they normally lay their eggs so they leave them alone. If the vine grows through the shade cloth, it will sometimes get attacked by a worm. If I catch it early enough (like the bird that gets the worm), I can easily control them by picking them off. I fortunately have chickens who enjoy the ugly green worms.

Spider Mites – this is the first year I’ve ever had spider mites on my tomatoes. I learned that these mites like hot, dry, dusty conditions so perhaps the drought is making them more prevalent. They came on suddenly and spread like wildfire within a few days so keep your eyes out for symptoms of spider mites – especially if you’re in North County. I say “symptoms” because you can’t actually see the mites, which is why they’re hard to control. You usually don’t know you have them until it’s too late.

What to look for: They affect the bottom leaves first and is characterized by white or grayish specks on the tops of the leaf. If the population gets bad enough, you’ll also see a glossy, gray sheen on the leaves. Leaves may also look mottled and curled. The leaves eventually turn yellow or brown and die. The mites don’t eat the fruit but they can damage it.

The tiny mites are very hard to get rid of and without some type of control, they will devastate your crop. I picked off as many of the damaged leaves as I could. We then sprayed them with water. I have not had success with recommended oils in other applications and since I already had a large population and they can double their population in four days, I did not want to take the chance of a treatment not working and having to retreat. Therefore, we used a chemical control, which I only use in extreme situations like this one. The good news is: it worked.

An ounce of prevention…to help prevent spider mites, it’s recommended that mid-season washing of trees and vines to remove dust may help prevent late-season infestations, and that you occasionally water down the area between the rows to keep dust down.

One other interesting thing I learned from this experience is that heavy nitrogen in leaves provides conducive conditions for spider mite invasions. I use a complete, low nitrogen fertilizer with micro-nutrients for my tomatoes and peppers. However, my tomatoes were very lush and healthy before the attack and I had fertilized less than five days before the outbreak. It happened during the second week of July when we had extremely high temperatures in Paso Robles. I think all of this lead to the perfect spider mite storm.

Pick your tomato: just for fun, here’s a picture of today’s harvest. How many varieties can you name. Hint: not all 32 varieties are pictures and they’re all slicers (no plums or cherries).

Stay tuned for lines from the vine.