I know how Peter Jackson feels now. A trilogy sounds like a good idea when you pitch it, but the last part is always the hardest. Here is the last installment in our tomato trilogy. Part one seems such a long time ago now. And that’s because it is. 184 days to be precise. Our elation at the germination of our little seedlings 6 months ago was unbridled. But oh so much pasta sauce under the bridge since then.
We coooed and aaaahed as we pricked them out into pots and molly coddled them on inside until those warm summer nights arrived and we could plant them out . Then we staked them (too short), we tied them (too tight), we watered them (too much), we lateraled them (a bit wrongly), and we de-leafed them (too vigorously).
And if we didn’t kill them with kindness, every other pest and disease got a bit part in a scene to give us a helping hand. We covered blossom end rot, leaf cupping, lack of fruit set, caterpillar invasions, skin cracking and blight. Yep as far as a trilogy goes the second part was a predictably poor showing with a lot of pointless diversions for our heroes.
But if you do want to know how not to grow tomatoes click here to read the second episode.
As any good director knows, it is easy to lose sight of the plot in a trilogy. We were supposed to be trialing 5 different heirloom tomato varieties rated the best by American heritage gardening gurus and at the same time test different spray regimes against the dreaded pysillid bug that has been decimating tomato crops across the nation.
So a whopping six months on from the beginning – how are we doing? Well you’ll be pleased to know for all our farting around in the middle episode, we are now back on track and have some results to share with you.
We’ve grown five different varieties that were all new to us, so we were excited to see how they performed.
Paul Robeson has been outstanding across all three tests – the spray-free plant has lasted best against the pysillids and the plants are all producing good crops of large tomatoes. The second variety to ripen, the fruit were a bit prone to cracking around the shoulders but not as much blossom end rot as the others. Tastes as good as it looks. Beautiful rich flavour and very meaty.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green has been a little slower to ripen with a lot of fruit still coming on. It has been a favourite with the caterpillars and we’ve lost quite a few to blossom end rot. But all this aside, it is a lovely flavoured fleshy tomato. It has a sweetness and nuttiness to it that all green tomatoes seem to have. If you close your eyes you wouldn’t know it was green. You can tell when they ripen as they get a little orange blush along the shoulders and go slightly softer.
Black Krim has had some fruit that ripened quite early and is taking a wee break at present with a lot of fruit still to ripen. The fruit has been mostly large and lovely funky shapes. A little cracking around the shoulders after the rain but the fruit still ripened. It hasn’t held up as well to the pests and diseases as I would have hoped with the “no-spray” plant succumbing pretty much overnight to the psyllids when they showed up. It does live up to its reputation for flavour with lovely smokey deep taste that is not as sweet as some other tomatoes but well worth trying.
Mortgage Lifter is a large beefsteak type tomato which we had high hopes for as a good sauce and soup variety. It certainly lives up to its reputation for setting large meaty fruit and out of all the varieties it ripened first. I’ve heard from some of our customers that they prefer it for flavour over beefsteak and I can see why. It has a gorgeous sweet old fashioned tomato flavour. It has succumbed to cracking quite badly after the rain but I think some of that may be down to the drainage in the bags.
Cherokee Purple has been slow out of the blocks and only the sprayed plant is producing fruit. The no-spray one I lateraled the top out of and it sulked and the organic spray plant with the pyretherum had an early set back and hasn’t produced either. I might reserve judgement on this variety until the rest of the fruit ripen. We have some plants in the main garden too that are looking promising. The fruit we have had has a lovely rich flavour.
The Pysillids …
The baddie showed up right on cue. For a while there I thought we were going to have a pysillid free summer – just because I wanted them to appear so I could test the different protection methods and resilience of these varieties.
Sadly the “we’re so healthy” un-sprayed tomatoes succumbed to the psyllid in less time than it took me to look up how to spell it. I went away for a weekend and when I came back boom, all the non-sprayed tomatoes had started yellowing at the top and leaf curling and a close inspection showed the little jumping culprits. They are very hard to spot but here is a useful guide to identification.
Out of all of the non-sprayed varieties, Paul Robeson and Aunt Ruby’s German Green are resisting the pysillid the best at this point.
The Organic Sprays…
A roundup of organic sprays and protection methods (that is a literal roundup, not a Monsanto Roundup®) shows that the neem granules have proven effective at holding off the pysillid so far but the caterpillars were undeterred by it and munched through quite a few of the leaves and fruit before we exercised some digit control (fingers) on them.
The neem oil spray has worked a treat at keeping both caterpillars and pysillids at bay but the plant we’re trialing it on had a bit of a set back early on so it hasn’t produced fruit yet. The same goes for the pyretherum spray so I am really encouraged by these results. I’ll update it later in the season to see if it holds as the psyillid population increases in their non-sprayed neighbours.
The soapy water spray has so far successfully controlled the aphids and any pysillids but it hasn’t stopped the caterpillars, more digit control was required. I also under-planted this one with basil as a companion plant and although the tomato plant seems healthy, the fruit is small and not ripening yet. Maybe the basil is robbing a bit of goodness from the grow-bag.
The surprise of the organic methods has been the crop protection mesh from Lincoln University’s biological husbandry unit that we’re trialing. I found it really faffy and annoying to begin with and had my doubts about how effective it would be but it has turned out to be brilliant on a number of levels.
Not only has it made a nice little micro-climate away from too much sun and wind for our plant, it has also stopped any pysillids and caterpillars and the rain does seem to get through it. The foliage is in great condition and the fruit has set evenly up the whole plant.
I have been poking the hose in to water it and I have seen some other insects inside the mesh but its been hard to secure it around the grow bag. If you were using it in the garden I could see how it would be easier to set up a more permanent frame over your crops that you dug into the earth at the edges. The crop does seem to be taking quite a bit longer to ripen though than the same variety with no mesh on it.
The Chemical Spray …
As much as it pains me to say it, the chemical spray tomatoes are now faring the best. Not by a million miles though and I will update this as things progress over the final weeks of the harvest. The plants are not as healthy looking as the organic spray plants but the fruit is coming on more consistently and the plants are free of caterpillars and psyillids.
Tomatoes on toast …
One last very important bit of research that I’m enjoying is determining the best variety for tomatoes on toast. It’s a tough call. More research required I think. At present it is a tie for first place between Mortgage Lifter and Black Krim.
I also have to say – I’m not sold on this growing in bags idea. I think if you’re going to grow in bags you need good shade so the roots don’t cook. The yield is going to be low because of a poor fruit set in the plants grown in bags.
Overall I have a nasty feeling that box office returns for this trilogy may not cover production costs and it may end up getting a fairly high score on “rotten tomatoes”. Not to worry, the leftover seedlings that he planted in the main garden have quietly grown into a mighty crop which are shaping up to be soup and sauce for winter if the psyillids or a bad case of sour grapes don’t get them first. Don’t you hate that.
And a PS. We thought it was all over but the tomatoes had other ideas. The photo below is at the end of March a whopping 8 months after we planted the seeds and as you can see we have a swag of tomatoes still coming on. As soon as the weather cooled down a little the plants got another lease of life and kept on setting fruit. The only trouble now is – will we have enough late summer heat left to ripen them?
We have about 8 plants left of the original 15. We haven’t sprayed them for the last month and the varieties that survived the bugs the best have been Black Krim, Paul Robeson and Aunt Ruby’s German Green. We’ve moved them all together in the most sheltered spot in the garden and removed any mildewy leaves.
…and a pps – yes we did get enough late summer warmth to ripen them and I was still picking tomatoes in mid April – 9 months after planting the seeds. These late toms were so rich and full of flavour. Just as I was losing patience with them they really started to deliver. I think the key to growing these big beefy heirloom varieties is get them in early and then plant some quick little cherry toms to give you some tomatoes during early summer while you wait.