Update on tomato garden: ups, downs, & stripes

fava bean root nodules
Fava bean root nodules

What’s better than fresh “fruit” from your own tomato garden?

For the last few years when I think about planning my summer tomato garden, I start months in advance preparing the soil.

I had fava beans as my cover crop all this past winter and tilled it into the soil late in winter. It adds a lot to the soil in terms of nutrients and nitrogen.

You can see in a plant I had just pulled up the little root nodules that crank out nitrogen, which is fixed from nitrogen gas in the air. There’s a nifty symbiosis in the nodules between the plant and certain bacteria that can fix the nitrogen.

The main thing I’ve been hoping is that the fava beans’ impact on the soil would yield happier tomato plants the following summer with a lot more tomatoes. When I planted the tomatoes in late March and early April 2018, the soil looked nice and rich.

Over the years, I’ve been getting lots of great tomatoes, including fun varieties from Wild Boar over in Napa. See “How to Grow Cool Tomatoes” for some tips.

So now that it’s July 2018, how have things gone this year so far?

tomato garden 2018
Tomato garden 2018

There have been many ups, but unfortunately some downs too.

On the positive, I’ve got about eight plants that now like the one shown at right that are loaded with about 15-20 ripening tomatoes on each plant. I’ve got another eight plants with maybe half that number. These are mostly standard, tougher varieties such as Celebrity, Champion, and Better Boy.

Also, I’m happy that some of the cool striped tomatoes and other unusual types have made it to be eaten and there are more to come (see below left with one standard red variety for comparison). Some of my favorites include Beauty King, Lover’s Lunch, and the heart-shaped Bull’s Heart (the giant one at 3 o’clock).

On the down side, more than half of the unusual tomato varieties’ plants including striped ones have succumbed to some kind of fungal thing. I think it was most likely Fusarium wilt. Ouch.

tomato garden; Beauty King, Lover's Lunch
Beauty King, Lover’s Lunch, Bull’s Heart, Champion

Other than planting resistant varieties from the beginning (which fortunately I did a lot more of this year than in the past), apparently there’s not much to do about Fusarium.

It’s not easily prevented and definitely not really treatable in tomatoes that already have it as far as I understand.

It’s hard to remove it and other fungal diseases from soil longer term, although apparently some professional farmers fumigate their soil. That sounds pretty harsh.

Champion, Celebrity, Better Boy, and Ace 55 are 90% resistant in my experience.

Then there’s the heat here.

Last year a long stretch of 100+ days in a row in early June took a big toll. We haven’t had too hot a spring and early summer yet here in the Sacramento area (and in fact Spring was cool for us, push back ripening by about a month), but even so we’ve had plenty of 100+ days on and off. Some plants just can’t stand up to that even for a day or two. Most varieties stop flowering even if they hold up well overall.

I have more tomatoes on the vine to come including the unusual Brad’s Atomic Grape, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Michael Pollan, and more standard varieties too. Lots of tomatillos this year as well; my experience with them has been that they tend to ripen later in summer.

What’s growing in your garden? How are your tomatoes doing?

5 thoughts on “Update on tomato garden: ups, downs, & stripes”

  1. Hi Paul,
    We plant several tomato plants between the 5th -15th of May in Southwestern Colorado. We plant Early
    Girls, Early Boys, and a few larger varieties. This year a friend started Cherokee Purples for me and they are going ok. We fight some kind of blight, or so I think that is what it is. I try to prune the tomatoes to keep any leaves from touching the ground, which is where the blight comes from. So far our plants don’t die, but the leaves turn spotted brown at first and then just dry up. What I want to know from you is how to get the tomatoes to grow in the center of the plant like it looks like yours do. Our plants are huge and spread out all over the place within theses huge cages my husband makes.
    I enjoy reading your blog. I’m not a medical person, just interested in stem cell. I tried PRP twice for an injury but it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. Keep up the good work and stay healthy!

    1. Hi montrosemustang,
      Great to hear from other gardeners. If you want tomatoes in the center of the plant, here’s my advice. First, grow the Champion variety as it is both a huge producer and sets tons of fruit near the center, and second, uses strong and tall stakes instead of tomato cages. I’ve found over the years at least for me that I get better results from all tomatoes from staking rather than caging. Champion by the way is also very disease resistant, which is key in my neck of the woods and could help you avoid that blight. I like to plant both Champion and Celebrity, another strong producer that gives bigger tomatoes. While I like Early Girl and Better Boy as well, Champion and Celebrity are even better. Paul

  2. Hi Paul,
    Sorry about the fungus, that is truly a bummer. And thanks for the fava bean suggestion. I will try this winter. In terms of sun, I’ve been experimenting with different sun shades – ie, old sheets hung on stakes. It made a big difference this past weekend when the temp in La Mesa topped 110. I’m a big fan of the Cherokee Purples, though they probably wouldn’t manage the fungus any better.

    1. Thanks, Josh. Last year some plants were dying and I thought it was just the heat, but I’m now pretty sure most of the problem then was and now is Fusarium wilt. The good news is that there are a decent number of resistant varieties, but the bad news is that most of the local (up here in N. California) fun Wild Boar Farms varieties I’ve tried are sensitive. One new variety I tried from seed (not mentioned in the post) seemed very promising called Summer of Love, but 7/7 plants succumbed to the disease within a month or two of being transplanted into the garden. Other types I started from seed were fine. The fava beans really do seem to help the soil, but manure would probably be fine. I’ve been wanting to try Cherokee Purple so will add to the list for next year. How’s it do with heat? I used sheets for shading last year and it helped. I don’t think we got to 110 last year here, but we had something like 7-10 days in a row above 100. Paul

      1. The Cherokee Purples did really well this year. I planted them early enough that, by the time the heat set in they were big enough to withstand it.

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