tomato lessons

tomato lessons

Last summer I received a bounty of early tomatoes from a lovely lady in exchange for coming to my yogurt-making class. In the cardboard box I found a mind-blowing assortment of wildly colored, deliciously flavored and differently shaped fruits of all sizes. Being frugal and curious, I saved seeds from many of these tomatoes. I did get the seed saving method right -let chunks of tomato pulp ferment in a jar with the seeds to mimic the fruit rotting in the wild, then lay out on a piece of paper to dry before storing in an envelope in a cool, dry location. We are growing 100’s of plants from these saved seeds! But I learned some really good lessons for next year.

1) Descriptions. Always describe the tomato varieties you are going to save seeds from better than this: “green stripey medium.” How will I know when this one is ripe? Was it a Green tomato with green stripes? Or a chocolate colored one with green stripes, or red with green…..

2) Labels. When you pot up sproutlings into bigger pots, LABEL EVERY SINGLE POT! I thought I’d recognize the different leaf shapes, but alas, they all looked the same as the plants grew. I also thought I’d remember which group was what. Not that it really matters, but I’d really like those purple cherry tomatoes to be planted together in a solid line in the garden, not willy nilly throughout the planting with big beefy types that don’t need to be picked as often.

3) Suckers. Stay on top of sucker pinching. I am proud to say this one has been done pretty well this year, but there is always room for improvement. My sucker experiment this year is to leave the tomatoes in the hoophouse mostly un-suckered. They are all indeterminates and will keep ripening fruits past the frost date, so why not let them get enormous? I’m trellising them upwards with baling twine from the purlins. In the garden, I’ve been on sucker patrol weekly. The plants don’t know summer is not eternal, and so you must help them focus.Their stalks are fat and healthy, and having the leaves off the soil hopefully will help prevent any blight coming upwards. It’s hard to follow your ideas week to week though, and I’ll find plants I pinched back WAY too much. (Like I took off ALL the leaders….whoops!) This year I’d like to think I’m refining my technique so I remember what I am doing next year.

4) Water. We really need to do drip irrigation next year, and set it up right after we plant, not think it’s a good idea after we plant everything. So far it’s been ok, but if we get into drought conditions, it’d be such a shame to lose fruit due to lack of an easy way to water the plants. The mulching of semi-composted goat poop hay seems to be keeping the plants happy and moist below the soil so far.

5) Value-added. Can way more salsa and pizza sauce. Stick sprigs of basil in more quart jars of plain pureed tomatoes. Be prepared to try selling a the farmer’s market under the new Pickle Bill Law now in effect in WI.

6) Control. Don’t start SO many tomato seeds so early. Yes, I fell for the spring fever routine and started way too many plants way too early. Again. I always do! I’d like to curb my enthusiasm a bit next year and limit my early seedlings to the cool-tolerant varieties and the ones we’ll put in the hoophouse. But the plants destined for the outside garden can wait until April to be started. We just don’t have room for 2 foot tall tropical babies in the house, taking up space we need for starting all the other things. Some of those early early plants gave up and died before I even could put them out.

7) Peppers. When it’s January and you can’t wait- focus on peppers. Peppers can be started SUPER early, and once they are about 2 months of age and put through the annoying routine of being lugged into the basement each and every night for a month- you will get early, early peppers this way! It makes the pepper plants believe they are in their homeland, going through the cool desert evenings. I am here to tell you that it worked.

8) Space. There is always room for those last plants. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I have stuck tomatoes way too close together, and made more and more tomato beds. Finally they are all in the ground, but it got kind nutty there at the end. Maybe not focus on getting every last seed started? We have probably over 300 plants this year, dear god. Am I covering my bases, or was it just too many plants to have started?

turkey walk

A month ago, when we were starting to put the roof on the duck barn, a wild turkey showed up in the yard out of nowhere. As we keep a flock of domestic turkeys, the first response was “how did she get out?” Then we noticed how this turkey’s serpentine neck stretched taller than usual above the grass. The streamlined, enlongated shape of her body was obviously different than our little butterball Broad Breasteds, who literally waddle about, their breast muscles getting in their own way. This wild turkey strolled past us nonchalantly, under the ancient oak tree, and over to visit our little turkey poults. We’d just situated them outdoors in their giant, over grown pasture. She made the turkey hen click-beep noises to them, decided they were not what she thought they’d be and began heading up towards the house, where my mother-in-law was sketching. Arly is not a fan of turkeys, having had a traumatic turkey incident in her childhood. All three of us working on the barn shouted to her- LOOK A TURKEY!- like it’s some kind of magical and once-in-a-lifetime event. The wild hen briskly strode towards where Arly stood, then darted under the rose bush. Arly and the turkey didn’t see each other yet, so when Arly looked under the roses for the turkey, the wild hen bolted into the air and FLEW across the yard, over the goat pasture, over the low spot and down into the road. It was a nature moment if ever I saw one. Beautiful. And startling!

While the majesty of a giant wild bird flying through the farm is a show stopper, I love our little butterballs. The four hens we raised last summer and overwintered have just finally stopped laying eggs. I wanted to put them into the bigger pasture until we try breeding turkeys again next year. I have read 2 year old hens have better chances of laying successfully hatched out eggs, so we’ll keep these sweeties over winter again. I’m a bit worried that they might get mixed up with the other turkeys we are raising to harvest this year, so I made a little paddock next to the big pasture until we decide what to do, like make leg bands or something.

How do you move a turkey a short distance? No way could you hold onto a 40 lb solid muscle machine, so a slow paced guided walk is the best turkey transportation method. Well cared for domestic turkeys are really easy to herd along to where you’d like them to go. Just use two long sticks as extensions of your arms, keeping the ends of the sticks near the turkeys’ eye level, on either side of the bird or the group of birds. Think Edward Scissorhands!

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