Monday, May 15, 2017

Growing tomatoes, not tomato plants

I thought I knew tomatoes.
I've been such a sucker.

When it comes to my vegetable garden, I don't have terribly high expectations. My goals are simple:

I don't think that's asking too much. I'm not some kind of urban prepper who is trying to live off the land, avoiding the grocery store as if it were an evil empire. I have no desire to "put up" vegetables, sweating over a canning stove set up in the garage, hoping to line my pantry with gloriously colored jars of goods.

No, I just want to grow a few vegetables, mostly tomatoes. This should be easy, it really should. I know how to do this, I live in Sacra-Tomato for beet's sake. Speaking of winter gardens, I'm not that interested in kale, and collards and massive cabbages. Just give me some nice fat and juicy red tomatoes. Please!

I think this is the year. I don't want to set myself up for too much disappointment, but I think I'm on to something. First, we got rain, and we got lots of it. It rained so much our front yard started to flood one evening, and that is a physically impossible phenomenon. But there I was, staring out the window from our bedroom, yelling at my husband, "The front yard is FLOODING!" Amazing year, that it was. So I'll have no guilt giving my tomatoes the one thing they really love, lots of water, twice a week.

It's now finally warming up, and tomatoes love that too. They don't like it too cold, but they won't "set fruit" when it's ghastly hot either, so we are good on that front. This has been one of the loveliest Springs I ever remember in the Sacramento region. It's halfway through May, and I have not once felt the least bit hot and bothered. It's truly been glorious.

And now, on top of all that water and perfect temperatures, I think I've finally discovered what has been alluding me in my quest to grow tomatoes. 

I've been growing tomato plants, not tomatoes.

Yes, that has been the sad fact for many years now, and I discovered this by typing "How to grow tomatoes in the Sacramento Valley" into YouTube. Trying to work past the many odd people who post badly filmed and blurry tomato videos on the Internet, I came across something amazing and profound about tomatoes.

You have to pick the suckers off them. Tomato plants grow suckers, which to the untrained eye (that would be my eye) look just like they belong. They don't belong, they must go, the sooner the better. Now these suckers are not some random occurrence which comes up once in a blue moon, Oh, no no no. Suckers come up between every single horizontal stem coming off the vertical stalk. They shoot up like the cutest little thing, usually at a 45 degree angle. They used to make me so happy, I thought I was doing everything right as my tomato plants grew to amazing proportions, with these big offshoots growing from the main stalk at 45 degree angles. My what a good urban farmer I am, I would think, as the plants grew and grew, giving me hardly any tomatoes. 

Never again, I'm all over those suckers this year, I'm tearing them off like mad. Take a look again at the photo up top. See the sucker? This one isn't exactly at a 45 degree angle, but no matter, it was a sucker and it is now gone. Once you tear off a sucker, that's not the end of it, it will want to come back, but just keep at it.

My tomato plants don't look as big and full as they usually do by now, with all this hacking away on my part. But another thing the tomato people on YouTube say is that tomato plants need air circulation, and suckers suck air along with water and energy. My plants are putting out the blossoms, and have the cutest little green tomatoes already. This is the year. The Year of the Tomato, not the plant.