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Troubles in the Tomato Patch

The subject of our tomato troubles isn't that enjoyable for me to talk about, but I wanted to share it to present an honest picture of the challenges of growing food, and attractive food in particular.  It doesn't feel entirely truthful to just share the stories of crops that look great and disease free all of the time. 

We didn't know it then, but last season was apparently a really strong tomato year for us.  We measured our yields carefully as we do with all of our crops and used that information to plan for this year.  It is obvious now,  that our tomatoes this season are seriously underperforming.  I was expecting to be able to harvest 500-700 lbs of tomatoes this year, but at this point, it looks like we may only get 50-100 lbs of good quality fruit.  I wish we could start the crop again this year, but since we rely on the natural seasons, that wish will have to wait until next spring.  It seems the best we can do now is observe carefully, intervene where possible, and use the experience to plan a better strategy for next season.

The problems we have been observing with our tomatoes are stunted growth, frequent cracking of the fruit, and spreading leaf discolourations and wilting which are typical signs of fungal diseases.  You can see examples of the cracking in the photo below.  The cracking occurs in varying degrees, sometimes even exposing the inner tomato juices much to the delight any fruit flies nearby.

The tricky part about growing anything outdoors is that there are a so many variables in play and this makes it difficult to narrow down the root causes of problems.  Nevertheless, here are some likely factors:

- We had a lot of rain in July which would have made the tomatoes more susceptible to fungal diseases.  Sudden increases in moisture levels can also cause fruit to crack. - I planted our tomatoes on May 15th this spring which is a bit early.  It didn't freeze after that but the cooler soil temperature may have stunted growth and increased the risk of disease.  

- Mulch was applied around the base of the tomatoes early in the season and this would have kept the soil cooler for an extended period.  

- Heirloom tomatoes are just more finicky than their hybrid counterparts.  They have been bred for their fantastic flavour but often lack disease resistance and have thin skins that bruise and crack easily.  

- I moved our tomatoes to a sandier plot this year and did not add new compost at the time of transplanting.  Less organic matter in the soil means poorer moisture retention and irregular moisture levels can lead to fruit cracking.

- Last year, I potted up the tomato transplants all the way to 4" soil blocks, but after reading some research that showed larger transplants didn't actually increase yields, I only went as large as 2" soil blocks this year to save time.  The root systems were less developed when transplanting outdoors and if growth was further slowed by cool soil temperatures maybe this change in transplant size had a negative impact after all.

So there is the list of possible factors all of which may have had some degree of influence.  I think only careful record keeping and many more years of experience will really tell.  I am already excited for next season when I can approach our tomato growing with the knowledge from this year.  Some obvious changes will be to delay planting until the end of May, make sure the soil is more exposed to the Sun in order to increase the temperature, and incorporate more organic matter to help stabilize moisture levels and equip the plants with necessary nutrients.  As for the rest of this season, we will continue to baby the tomatoes we do have and make sure that any blemish free fruit get to our farm members in small amounts at our Mini Market or in the weekly boxes if/when there is enough for everyone.


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