The Great Tomato Challenge

photo by Steve Johnnson on Unsplash

A couple of years ago I wrote about “the great strawberry challenge” in which I grew different 
varieties of strawberries to see how they would do in my gardening conditions. I am now embarking on “the great tomato challenge.” If you looked at the picture on the right and thought I was going to tell you how to grow beauties like that, sorry to disappoint you. That picture represents my goal, not my achievement.
                I have struggled growing tomatoes in my garden. I get lovely plants, until just as the tomatoes are developing. Then the plants get sick looking and die. I am quite sure that the problem is blight. I have looked up remedies from organic to chemical and am planning to try a variety of methods in my quest.

                To start the experiment I planted several varieties of tomatoes last week. This is about a month behind when I would normally plant them. However, planting them earlier requires putting “Wall O’ Waters” or some other protection around them. I have wondered if doing so holds in humidity and contributes to the development of disease. I don’t know that, I merely suspect it. So I planted late this year. To make up for the late planting, I purchased fairly large plants.
                I looked up blight resistant varieties of tomatoes and found long lists. Unfortunately, most of those varieties were not available from the nurseries where I shop. So I looked at the labels on the plants that were available. Often they contained a long list of letters such as VFFN or VFFNTA. Without looking it up, I can’t tell you what each of those letters stands for, but I do know that they all are diseases. Having the letter on the tag means the tomato is resistant to that disease, so the longer the string of letters, the better. Of course, being resistant doesn’t guarantee they won’t get the disease. It just means they won’t fall over and die at the first whiff of infection. Not all of the tomatoes I chose had those letters. Some I chose for other reasons, but I did select several that did.
                The varieties I chose are:
                Beefsteak—we grew this one last year and it did quite well.
                Big Boy—this is another one that did well for us last year.
                Goliath—this one had a long string of letters and a short growing time (65 days) so I had to try it.
                Super Fantastic—this one had a moderate amount of letters and is supposed to be an improvement on the old Fantastic variety. We’ll see.
                Celebrity—this one had a super long list of letters, though none of them stand for blight. But it does seem to be resistant to everything else which can’t hurt.
                Hamson—this variety was developed at Utah State University which is only two hours from where I live and which is where my son is going to school, so it made it into my challenge.
                4th of July—this variety is supposed to produce early (45 days) hence the name. Early varieties tend to be susceptible to early blight, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on this one.
                42 days—this variety is supposed to produce even earlier than 4th of July. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it for signs of early blight too.

                I also planted sweet 100, which is a cherry tomato that has done well for us, but it really isn’t part of the challenge.
                My challenge is not a scientific study. For one thing, the plants were not all planted in identical conditions. My garden has two areas: a raised garden bed area with soft, fluffy, rich-in-organic matter soil, and a large open area where I grow corn and squash. Some of the tomatoes went into each area. Normally that wouldn’t make a lot of difference since we have added a lot of organic matter to the open area over the years. However, this year is a little different. I am the chairman of the tree committee for the city of Shelley. In April I got a phone call from a local nursery offering the city free trees. The only catch was that the trees had to be picked up right away. We were not ready to plant the trees, so I had my son dig a trench in my open garden area, and we heeled in the trees there for a month. They were large trees which required equipment to move them. So my garden area had pick-ups, tractors, trailers, and bobcats driving all over it putting the trees in and then taking them out. Consequently, the soil is quite compacted.       

                Another inequity is that I put old tires around some of the tomatoes but not others. That really wasn’t part of the experiment, I just didn’t have enough for them all. My dad used to put old tires around tomatoes. I think they offer a little protection to the plants and hold in heat. I decided to try using old tires last year, and it seemed to help some. The gross thing with old tires is that they get water in them, and it gets green and slimy, which I doubt is good for the plants. To deal with that, I had my husband drill holes about 2” in diameter into each tire. That gives me a drain to pour the water out.
                I had enough tomato cages to put on each plant, but as you can see from the pictures, they aren’t in the best of condition. I’m quite sure they are older than some of my children, and my children are all adults. So I’ve been using them a long time, and they are just about shot. I’ve thought about buying new ones, but until I’m sure I can grow a healthy crop of tomatoes, I’m not going to make that investment.

                Because of the inequitable conditions, I can’t judge the varieties against one another. My goal is to try different techniques I’ve learned and see if any of them seem to help keep the plants healthy. The first technique I tried is to add Epsom salts and powdered milk to the soil when planting tomatoes. I used half a cup of each per plant. I sprinkled some in the hole and mixed some in the dirt that would back fill the hole. I’ve tried this the past couple of years with optimistic results. A funny
side effect was watching my cats sniff and lick at the dirt around the plants. They could obviously smell the milk.
                So that’s it, the start of the great tomato challenge. It may take me multiple years to get it all figured out—I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to stumble upon the perfect solution right off the bat, but who knows. I’ll keep you posted.
               

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