Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tomato Report

Seems everywhere you turn, the garden talk is about how bad the tomato season is. The early season weather was cool and wet, gardeners had to wait until very late in the spring to set out plants, and now Late Blight is reeking havoc on tomato crops throughout the Northeast.

My own tomato crop is at least three weeks behind last year's in terms of fruit maturity and ripening schedule. I am also seeing smaller plants, quite a few yellow leaves, and about half the amount of fruit this year as compared to last year. Last season, with fewer plants, I was swimming in tomatoes by this time. I was eating tomatoes at every meal, and giving bags of extras to my neighbors and family.

Things could be much worse, however, and I am very glad I decided to go with the tomato varieties I picked. Way back in mid-Winter, I did some research and found a small owner operated company in Lancaster, Pa., Amish Land Seeds. This is a small, one woman operation that provides hand selected heirloom seeds from the Amish and Mennonite farms throughout Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They have a fantastic website with excellent photos and descriptions of all of the seed varieties they sell.

I think that several factors helped me out tremendously this year and helped salvage what could have been a total crop failure. First, I am growing only seed started heirloom tomatoes that were developed to grow successfully in my own region. I have always been a fan of starting my own tomato plants from seed, but many years I will also buy some starts from my local garden supply center if I see something interesting. Even in the poor growing conditions we have had, my plants have maintained nice steady growth and reasonable fruit production. The few tomatoes I have harvested so far have been delicious!

I am completely sold on this idea of growing locally developed heirloom varieties, and I am looking forward to seeing how well they do in what will hopefully be a better weather season next year and in years to come.

Here are photos I took this morning of the varieties I am growing. Looks like I should be getting some nice harvests in the next few weeks...

Howard German (Amish Heirloom)

Glicks 18 Mennonite (Mennonite Heirloom)

Harzfeuer (German Heirloom)

Schmmeig Creg (German Heirloom)

Amish Land Seed website

*Edit*... When I wrote this post I had not seen this fantastic Op-Ed in the 8/8/09 New York Times...

You Say Tomato, I say Agricultural Disaster, by Dan Barber

Barber spells out many of the things that have contributed to the current harvest problems...

It’s important to note, too, that this year there have been many more hosts than in the past as more and more Americans have taken to gardening. Credit the recession or Michelle Obama or both, but there’s been an increased awareness of the benefits of growing your own food. According to the National Gardening Association, 43 million households planned a backyard garden or put a stake in a share of a community garden in 2009, up from 36 million in 2008. That’s quite a few home gardeners who — given the popularity of the humble tomato — probably planted a starter or two this summer.

Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

So what do we do?

For starters, if you’re planning a garden (and not growing from seed — the preferable, if less convenient, choice), then buy starter plants from a local grower or nursery. A tomato plant that travels 2,000 miles is no different from a tomato that has traveled 2,000 miles to your plate. It’s an effective way to help local growers, who rely on sales of these plants before the harvest arrives. It’s also a way to protect agriculture. If late blight occurs in a small nursery it’s relatively easy to recognize, as straightforward as being able to see the plant, recognize its symptoms and isolate it before it has a chance to spread.

... and there is a great follow up to the Barber Op-Ed on Slow Food's Blog...

So, when we start thinking about what next to grow in our gardens, let’s search out place-based varieties, buy plants from local farmers and nurseries and buy seeds from regional seed companies. This will ensure those seeds are adapted to our particular climate needs

Slow Food USA blog

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