Have you ever planted tomatoes?
I am relatively new to the practice, this being my second full season. But I am an avid convert.
There is nothing like the taste of real, home grown, fresh, tomatoes right off the vine (and those overpriced “vine ripe tomatoes” at the grocery store don’t even come close). If you haven’t experienced them, you really must. Seriously.
The season for tomatoes, at least here in the northern hemisphere, is summer. This requires planting in early spring, about March. Depending on the type, March plants start bearing fruit in late June or early July and baring any pest related issues, bear fruit through the summer and into the fall.
For the past two years, as fall approached and the days shortened, I tried my hardest to salvage what I could of the remaining plants, not wanting to relinquish them to the coming ‘winter’ (a word that, when used in the context of Southern California, really has to be put in quotes). I figured that if the plants started to look a bit bleak it must be due to something I was doing or not doing.
Maybe I should have fertlized them.
Should I cut them back?
Are they getting enough water?
No matter what I did, nothing seemed to help. Both of the previous winters I finally gave up, realizing that the half-ripened vestiges of tomato were not exactly what I had in mind when my taste buds pictured ‘fresh from the vine.’
But then I had a life changing experience. Not long ago there was an article in the local paper about fall tomatoes. Was the author peering over the wall into my garden? Because he described my situation to a tomato…
Although the plant looks awful, we think to ourselves, “there’s still a chance it will recover.” A noble thought, but not likely. It’s a downward slide from this point on for a struggling tomato. March-planted tomatoes are only going to get worse, not better. Yes, there is a handful of small green fruit on the plant, so you say to yourself, “I’ll just wait until these turn red, then I’ll start a new plant.”
You know the scenario. A month later you pluck the three or four ripe tomatoes. But now you notice two more little green ones coming along, “Just a little longer, until these are ready?”
By now, it’s October or November and too late to have any success with a fall tomato crop. Sound familiar?
Fall tomatoes? The idea opened up a whole new world to me. Maybe there was hope after all.
But what about the three plants that were, in fact, still producing their noble efforts? One of them even had new flowers and a fresh, healthy looking gree shoot. I can’t uproot that new growth, can I? Maybe I should just leave it alone and see what happens. What if I pull out my existing plants and the new ones don’t take hold? Then I will have nothing. At least if I leave alone what I have I am guaranteed a meager result—meager is better than nothing, right?
But I knew that Ron Vanderhoff was right. I had experienced it myself twice already. Did I really want to persist and confirm my findings a third time? Or did I want to take the risk of trusting that what he said was valid—that the path toward tomatoes actually required that I first pull out the old to make room for the new?
Well, it is too late now. I have taken the plunge. I dug up the tomatoes this afternoon. I am not kidding when I say that it was a difficult endeavor. I knew the benefits. I have even seen them confirmed in my neighbors’ flourishing new fall tomato plants. Even still, it was hard to bring myself to dig up the old. I did take off all the green tomatoes—maybe I can look up a recipe for fried green tomatoes?
I haven’t resolved my questions. I still wonder if the new plants will actually take hold. I still doubt that this decision was a good one. I am still worried that it is too much of a risk. I am afraid that I have let go of the old without having any guarantee that the new will take hold. As a general rule, I don’t like taking risks. Sure, this one is not life or death. But still, my caprese salad is on the line here, and that’s serious business.
At the end of the day I realize that it is not entirely up to me. I mean, I can plant them, make sure the automatic watering system is working, and provide them support on which to grow as they mature. But whether or not they bear fruit? That is out of my control. That is where I have to trust that there is another Gardener who seems to be in the business of new life.
For now, it is time to plant.