Organic Gardening with Sue Robishaw
King of the Garden
Four decades of Growing
in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Tomatoes are such a wonderfully diverse crop, standard fare, independent. They keep gardeners engaged -- in their gardens and with each other. Maybe in less challenging environs it isn't so, but here in the north there is hardly a gardener who doesn't mention their tomatoes. A vine ripened tomato is something to crow about, and favorite varieties worth long discussions. I've had fun experimenting with different, mostly heirloom, varieties over the years, and enjoying the fruits of my labors.
The years pass so quickly! In a way my tomato saga is the same, and in ways different, than my last post below in 2008. Our summers have been hotter lately; ripening tomatoes not quite the challenge it used to be. Though we still have those surprise frosts to keep us on our toes. The various blights continue to be a challenge.
My Rain cherry tomato is still good, a reliable producer, giving us small fruits all season. I start a few plants very early in the greenhouse, a few more later, then direct plant seeds in the garden for a late crop. They tend to sprawl, and crack in a year with a lot of rain (not often) but they always give lots of fruit so we have plenty. I've tried a few other cherries but always come back to this one. We don't need many, and it does well.
After so many years of growing and selecting the best plants of my Earlirouge I finally had to admit I wasn't making any progress for disease resistance. Early and reliable they certainly are, and a nice fruit, but they would be done before the season was over, more noticeable when the growing season was longer. To be fair, this variety was bred to produce in short, cold seasons, something it did well. It just couldn't sustain itself longer. I gave tomatoes one last chance in 2018, planting some of all the varieties I still had seed for, plus a few new ones. I did get tomatoes, but none of them did well in the end. I decided to give up on main crop tomatoes; just growing the small ones for salads.
That lasted two years. It just didn't feel right not to grow some tomatoes (other than cherry) when we were having such warm, long (relatively speaking) growing seasons now. Surely there were some good blight resistant, open pollinated, short season tomatoes out there that could be grown without chemicals, I just had to look. What I found wasn't exactly heartening -- the issues with blights were widespread, it wasn't just in my garden.
There were a few new varieties that sounded
promising, none yet available. I decided that was OK, I'd stick with my small
Rains. I realized I didn't want to again grow enough tomatoes to can anyway. I
hadn't missed that part of growing main crop tomatoes. Then I was looking around
very interesting "Wild Garden Seeds" website (
very interesting "Wild Garden Seeds" website (
I thought I'd just try a few plants, but you know how seeds are, so tiny, as easy to plants a lot as a few, and I did. Spring came early and enticed gardeners and gardens alike to likewise start early. I'm always anxious to get my plants out of the greenhouse and into the garden so mid May the tomato seedlings were nestled into their custom large cold frame, looking good. A week later came the freezes, four nights in a row, from 22 to 28 degrees. A late freeze isn't unusual, but four in a row is. Though covered with blankets (as was most of the garden) the seedlings couldn't handle that. But I had two extra plants still in the greenhouse, so I planted those (later).
It was a long, hot summer and the plants did well, one more productive than the other but neither had any disease. And they both had nice, large, good tomatoes, ripening just fine. I'll certainly give these another try next year. It will be interesting to see how they do in a cooler summer.
I finally abandoned the indeterminate
tomatoes and planted almost all Earlirouge, with a few Minnesota Large Yellow and a
trial of a variety from Jim Ternier of Prairie Grown Seeds called Rosebec (like
Earlirouge, it also is a Canadian introduction). It was a nice medium size pink
that did OK, similar in size and taste to Earlirouge, but not quite as good a
producer for me (of course, my Earlirouge has had many years to become acclimated
to my garden). In spite of my propensity for many varieties, next year I'm going
to go to just planting Earlirouge, and a few of the small Rain's for
salads. What a change that will be from my years of trialing so many varieties
(and having at it, too)!
Another summer with extended drought and hot conditions in July/August. And though we did get the all too usual late June frost, no hard frost or freeze in the fall until October 12. I wouldn't want to try to garden without mulch. Unfortunately, another bad year for blight. But we got a pretty good harvest anyway. Note to put paper guards around transplants RIGHT AWAY -- don't wait. I know, I should know that by now but... Oh well, I only lost three plants. It could have been worse. I'm using heavy paper or light cardstock, mostly scrap of this and that and that works well. About 4" tall, wrapped fairly tight around the stem and pushed into the ground a inch or so. It works when you do it, not when you don't.
No extremes this year, which was nice, just a little bit of everything. Unfortunately, though, a lot of blight in both plants and trees, including the tomatoes. Not a bad year though. I like the wood rack. Timing is a bit tricky, to leave the cold frames on long enough to protect the plants from late frosts, but to get them off and the racks on before the plants get too large. I've finally decided that though I am very fond of the Minnesota Large Yellow and Early Chatham tomatoes, they are too juicy since my tomatoes mostly go for sauce. I'm going to cut back on the number of those I plant. And though I continue with the various indeterminates, I do wonder why. They're interesting, but they simply are not early enough to be reliable producers.
Another try at the "ideal"
tomato support this year. The fence U's turned out to be not so great as the
heavy vines tended to damaged by the wire, and they were rather a bother to
disentangle vines from fence. So I engaged my patient, resident woodworker and
problem solver (Steve) and we came up with a design for a wooden rack using some
poplar boards we had had milled a few years ago. Three boards running the length
of the bed, with 12" legs, and cross pieces every 9" (my plants are
planted in two rows, 18" apart). As long as you get the rack on before the
plants get too large, it's easy and it worked very well. Easy on the plants,
easy to cover, easy to reach in and around to get the inner tomatoes. I
like it. It was used for the semi-determinate Earlirouge and Minnesota Large
Yellows. I went back to pole t-pees for the tall indeterminate varieties.
It wasn’t a great TOMATO year, but I was able to put up a modest
amount of sauce and juice. My tomato challenges started in the greenhouse when
the entire flat of my main Earlirouge tomato gave up. Seed problem? Soil
problem? Unknown disease problem? Maybe they knew what the summer was going to
be like and just didn’t want to. It was too late to start a new batch, so I
stopped by a small, homestead greenhouse and bought some hybrid Flora America,
which the women told me in a "no nonsense I have no time to chat this is
what you want" way, that that was what I wanted. OK, who can argue with
They loved the heat! I planted six different varieties this year, and once again my old standby Earlirouge came out on top. The rest were new, with Mary’s Paste being a bit spotty with fruit but a good sized paste, and Poll Robson being an interesting color of dark orange over dark red, but the latest maturing. Victorio was a prolific grower of vines -- too weedy for me. Extra Eros didn’t have great fruit, but they ripened fairly early. They were many shades of red, light orange and medium orange -- pretty but hard to judge when they were ripe. The last was Big White. Not a lot of fruit, but impressive large and meaty globes, and not too bad with maturity. I’ll probably give this one a go again.
I finally came up with a very workable tomato trellising system this year. In the past I've tried both tying to stakes and letting the plants run on the mulched ground. But it's hard to cover staked tomatoes with blankets, my remedy for a short season. And in a wet year (such as this one), I lose quite a few to rot, even on mulch. So I looked around for something else. Something not disposable, something I didn't have to buy, something fairly easy to put on and take off, something that would keep the tomatoes up off the ground, yet allow me to cover them easily when frost threatened. Piece of cake, right?! Well, as it turns out, for me, it was right there beside the garden, just waiting to be reincarnated as tomato racks. Heavy woven wire fencing, or hog fencing as it's called around here, about 5 feet high, smaller openings at the bottom and larger at the top.. We had gotten many rolls of used and abandoned fencing years ago from a local farmer. I'd cut it up into manageable lengths and had used it for pea fence. But when I decided sticking brush in the ground was easier for the pea patch, they had been stacked aside.
Tomatoes were left to sprawl again, and due to the wet weather, quite a few were lost to rot and slugs. I guess I will go back to staking, or maybe will make short cages. The slugs seem to be proliferating faster than whoever or whatever eats them. Apparently the weather was great for them. But there were plenty of tomatoes for us as well. My old stand-by, Earligrouge, was, as usual, the top tomato in the field, with Early Chatham close behind, though with smaller fruit. Oligvose did well, too. Tiger Stripe ripened well, but the loss to rot was great. As interesting a tomato as it is, I don’t think I’ll grow it again.
Early warm, then cold; dry then wet, wet, wet. Everything slow and late to
ripen. Then a freeze mid-July, and frost mid-August. Ah, the wonders of
gardening in the north woods! But, as always, things to learn.
Ripe tomatoes on the vine! And tomato sauce until I ran out of jars. It’s
good to have a year like that once in awhile. Makes up for all those years we
have to bring green tomatoes inside to ripen in order to get red ones. Early
Chatham and Earlirouge continue my mainstays and favorites. Vendor did fine,
too. I grew a crop of Anton (a large, pink paste heirloom) for seed. But even in
this warm year, they were slow ripeners. Guess I’ll have to leave the
maintenance of that variety to someone in warmer climes. A friend gave me some
varieties to try: Brandywine, which I found rather bland and later than EC and
ER, but nice large fruit. Roma barely ripened at all. Siberia was very large,
and ripened along with Brandywine. Both of those would be good to try if you’re
looking for a beefsteak, mid-early ripening tomato. Bulgarian Triumph looked
like it would do well, but I broke the plant off early on, so it wasn’t a great
test. The one branch left ripened its fruit very early though—reminding me
that pruning is a good idea for the short season grower.
Tomatoes were pretty good. A smallish, soft, yellow tomato called Wendy was a new find for me, early maturing and good, if mild, flavor. I continue to plant a few of the old indeterminate Yellow Paste, a small pear shaped yellow tomato with a great flavor, just perfect for popping into your mouth when walking through the garden. I tried a new staking system for the indeterminate plants, poles tied into four pole tipis, each leg set outside one plant and that plant tied to that leg as it grew. The poles were 1-2 inch poplar saplings, 5-6 ft tall, the legs set two to three feet apart. They were easy to set up and worked great. To cover when the fall frosts came I laid blankets along either side of the leaning wall of tomato plants. Not real easy but it worked.
Two years ago I received some Early
Chatham seed from Jim at the Chatham Experiment Station (here in the U.P.). Someone had
sent him the seed which had been grown in Houghton County since 1940’s, and he
passed it on to me. Early Chatham had been introduced from the Chatham Station in 1939 by
the breeder Dr. A. F. Yeager and was a popular tomato in the northern areas at one
time. It was dropped from commercial sources between 1988 and 1991. There was
one person from Vermont offering the seed through the Seed Savers Exchange in
1993, but I received no response to my inquiry to him, and the next year that
listing was gone.
Copyright © Susan Robishaw
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Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
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