From Our President
President’s Letter Autumn, 2017
We are entering the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and nowhere is that fruitfulness more evident than in our tomato patch. Last spring, I read a book entitled Grow for Flavour, by James Wong, a research botanist for the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society who conducts field trials on food plants.
This is a man who reads scientific papers from all over the world, whose aim is to improve gardening practice wherever that garden is planted. He distinguishes home growers from commercial farmers, because commercial fruits and vegetables are grown for many attributes unrelated to how they actually taste—for example, uniform size, shine, and ability to withstand shipment over days and distance.
In our garden, a tasty tomato can be any size or shape it aspires to, and Wong has experimented with lots of tomato varieties and come up with techniques that we tried this summer and found useful, time-saving, and generally fabulous.
Once we get past a tomato’s genetic endowment—indeterminate, cherry, red, yellow—the flavor is down to nurture. Most of the aromatics, acids, spicy chemicals, and so on that increase crop flavor are defense mechanisms to fight insect attack or drought. There are ways to mimic an insect attack and get those chemicals in production, but I wanted to try techniques we could manage, and the place to start is drought. Drought stress equals more flavor and less work by increasing the tasty stress chemicals. The key of course, is to maintain the plants’ overall health while managing this.
Most plants need all the sun they can get. In our garden, the sunniest area was a lawn, which we have gradually brought under cultivation. “Less grass, more veg,” is my motto. Kay’s is “less grass, more flowers,” so between us we have a colorful and tasty garden. This is where the tomatoes are found.
Watering dilutes the flavor of crops. It also increases their weight, plump skin, and resilience in shipping, which goes a long way to explain the plight of supermarket tomatoes. So they look good, and the taste is, as it were, watered down. So we established our tomato plants, and despite the dry summer, did not water them again. The key is to water for the first few weeks, and then not water unless the plant is in peril.
To compensate for drought stress, we watered in the plants with a molasses mixture. Molasses provides minerals and micronutrients that boost soil microbes without adding nitrogen and phosphorous, which are already in abundance in our fertile soil, so molasses is a source of minerals and potassium and even better, sugar. Sugar is good for microbes, and is also absorbed by roots of plants, increasing root vigor and stress tolerance. We used ¾ of a cup of molasses in a gallon of water to drench about 50 square feet of garden. Needless to say, we now buy molasses in gallon jugs, which cost a fraction of those pint bottles in the baking section at Shaw’s.
The drought stress alone was probably enough to improve our Sungolds, Black Krims, and Rosella tomatoes, but we did try a few more techniques that we will use more systematically next year ---
We cut off the plants above the last truss of tomatoes that we wanted to ripen. This keeps down the need to stake, and the plants don’t shade each other out. And we cut off the ends of each truss, so that the remaining tomatoes ripened quickly and at roughly the same time. With the Sungolds, for example, we left eight or ten tomatoes on a truss, and snipped off the two or three on the tip.
Next year, I will try cutting the plants at about two feet tall, above just a couple of trusses. This should eliminate staking and pruning and mean more plants can be fitted into an area without smothering each other. Since I always start more seeds than are sensible, I may actually be able to plant out all my seedlings next summer!
I hope you all enjoyed our short and sweet Maine summer. We can look forward to some delightful autumn and holiday events, and if winter comes, can spring be far behind?
Yours in happy gardening,