Friday, 26 October 2012

The Terrible Tomato Year ... Heirloom At Fault?

Black Seaman Heirloom Tomatoes

I had a friend tell me the other day that she was not going to grow heirlooms next year... :( Sob!

This was her first year growing heirlooms tomatoes over hybrids... and we just happened to have a really terrible tomato growing year...
Sadly, most tomatoes did not ripen till late in the year, and some with less tomatoes than usual....

Our May was lovely and warm this year, kinda like the way things used to be in the good old days, and a real treat after last years cold and wet May:)

However, then came June...  June this year was very cool and very wet ...  this meant trouble for things like cucumbers and tomatoes that need heat in order to take up the nutrients from the soil and start producing. It took so long for the soil to warm up this year, that the plants were severely set back in both growth and productivity.

In reality, that tomatoes did so poorly had little to do with whether they were heirloom or hybrid, but rather with the poor season we had....

Now, it is possible that she might have had more fruit if she had grown a hybrid this year, as hybrid tomatoes often have a shorter growing season and produce more.
So after that hybrid recovered from our cooler than normal June, it indeed might have grown more fruit than the heirloom.
However, I say it might, because hybrid tomatoes are also known to require more water than heirlooms, qutie a bit more, and we recorded the driest summer this year! Four months with little to no rain.

Here is a break down of the pros and cons of hybrids and heirlooms.... In this case, I am talking tomatoes, but it applies to most other veggies, also...

The Advantage of Hybrids ...
Insurance! They are the back up plan! If you want to make sure you have tomatoes, grow a hybrid.
~ Higher yields ... they often produce more fruit in a shorter amount of time.
~ Uniformity ... the fruit tends to all be the same size and shape.
~ Stability ... they tend to be more firm and so hold up better in transport or at the market stand
~ Breeding .. bred specifically for cold hardiness, colour, size, shape and/or shelf life.
~ Compact Plants .. they tend to be determinate, meaning they grow as a bush, requiring no trellis to grow on.

Drawback of Hybrids..
~ Flavour .. The biggest drawback with the hybrid is that they were bred for farmers and shipping, so sadly taste became less important than high yields. However, it has been said that some hybrids are beginning to taste better ...kind of.
~ Cannot save seeds  ... when the zombies come, you will not be able to get the same fruits from the hybrid seeds you saved. Though you can plant the seeds you saved, you will have no way of knowing which traits from which parentage will come through. It may not be at all to your liking.
~ Requires more water ... in order to produce those higher yields, they require more water. If it does not get enough water, the plant will wither and die.

The Advantage of Heirlooms ...
Flavour! If you want to make sure you have great tasting tomatoes, grow heirlooms.
~ Flavour  ... this is the number one reason to grow heirlooms, they taste like tomatoes! and there are so very many different tastes to choose from!
~ Looks ... they are unique in colour or shape, or both... coming in striped versions, black , yellow, orange, purple, pink, red and orange. They make the prettiest salads and platters.
~ Seed Saving ... you can save this seed when the zombies come, and you will get that same tomato each and every time.
~ Less Water ... heirlooms can go longer without water, even as little as once a week, and will still survive and fruit, though perhaps less than they would with regular watering. 
~ The Story ... this one is important to me, and many heirloom lovers, we want to know about Charlie Byles and his Mortgage Lifter, or about The Cherokee's that saved the seed from that funny purple coloured tomato, the little old lady (Ludmilla) from Kazakhstan who took her tomato seeds with her when she emigrated ... There is always a reason, some trait or traits as to why that particular heirloom was chosen to be carried through the years ... and therefore, there is also a story!

Drawbacks of Heirlooms
~ Less consistency ... fruit may come in varying shapes and sizes on the same plant.
~ Less productivity ... you may have less fruit per plant.
~ Longer growing season ... most varieties require a longer time to produce fruit. Of course, there are shorter season ones, as well. Just ask! I will help, I promise!
~ Height ... many heirlooms are the vining type, indeterminate, and so get very tall and require a stake or trellis to grow on. There are determinate (bush) types though, and I usually make sure to grow at least 6 types a year, so if you have less space, please ask me for the bush types.

Martina's Roma heirloom tomato
A paste tomato that is a determinate (bush) type
Produces loads of fruit on a compact tomato cage size shrub

Sadly, there is more to this tale of a woeful tomato year ... 

This friend also said that she had so much blossom end rot and cat facing, and felt that that was also due to the fact that she grew heirlooms...

So let me explain how and why tomatoes get these two afflictions...


Blossom End Rot ... is a watering issue or an inconsistent watering issue, which causes a calcium deficiency in the plant.
The blossom end (bottom) of the tomato (or pepper) then gets water-y, squishy and then rotten looking ... this is Blossom End Rot.

Letting the plant go dry during a period of rapid growth will cause BER, as it interrupts the plants uptake of nutrients. Meaning, if you happened to miss a watering or two while the plant was rapidly growing or setting fruit, it was unable to access the calcium in the soil ...that time of deficiency shows up as BER.
It may also be a water-up-take issue, meaning that the roots are unable to take up the water, and therefore cannot take up the nutrients.
This can be due to the soil being too cold.
Or may be because of root damage caused by weeding too close to the feeder roots.

Generally, one only gets a few early tomatoes with BER and then the plant adjusts to the conditions, or we simply get better and more consistent at it as the year goes on ;) and so the rest of the tomatoes that follow are just fine.

BER is more common in potted plants than in garden plants, as the pots may dry out in between watering faster and more often than ground grown ones do... I had a few BER tomatoes this year, early on, in the greenhouse, but then the plants adjusted (and I became more consistent) so I had no issues for the rest of the year.

To prevent BER ...
Plant your tomatoes good and deep in the ground, or the pot, so that they develop a really long root system, and are then more able to go after the deeper ground water in between watering's.
Do not cultivate around the root system, instead mulch to help retain moisture, heat, and to prevent weeds.
Do not plant too early while the soil is cool, or plant into a cold frame, wall o water, or cloche, so the soil has been warmed and stays warmer.
Sprinkle Epsom Salts on top of the soil which gets to the roots every time you water... providing magnesium and calcium. Or water with Epsom Salt Water (1/2 cup per gallon of water) once a week.  

And... Water lots! and often! consistently! If in pots, you may need to water twice a day sometimes, in the heat of summer.

Also, cherry tomatoes are much less susceptible to BER than the others and paste types are most susceptible. Does not matter whether they are heirloom or hybrid types.   

Cat facing occurs in spring during blossoming time,
however, you will not know that you have it until much later,
as the fruit begins to size up and mature...

Cat-facing ... is caused mainly by two things, cool weather or bugs. It can also be caused by too much nitrogen in the soil. However, in our case, on the island in the PNW this year, it was absolutely the cool weather during flowering and fruit set (June) that caused the problems.

If temps are too low during blossom set, under 10 C, you are likely to get cat-facing. Sadly, you will not know about the cat facing though, until a month or two later, as the fruit matures.

There are just two things you can do... One thing is to remove any blossoms on the plant if temps dropped below 10 C for several days in a row. The tomato will produce new flowers and the fruit from those flowers will be fine.

The other thing is to protect them from the varying temps with cloches, wall o waters, cold frames or greenhouses.

Though I had some cat facing in my garden this year (I should have removed those flowers!) there was none on the tomatoes grown under cover. I grew 30 different varieties of tomatoes under cover this year, some in the greenhouse (heated) and some in the hoop house (unheated). No issues in either one.

The most susceptible type of tomato for cat-facing is the beefsteak, yes, especially the heirloom beefsteak. A hybrid beefsteak is less susceptible, though may still be affected. Cherries and pastes rarely have any problems.

Dix Doight's Des Naples ... an heirloom paste (Roma) tomato
Rarely, if ever, gets cat-facing!

Now you all know that I am super passionate about heirlooms and therefore, to me, there is no contest. There is nothing that will make me ever grow a hybrid over an heirloom.

Here's the thing though, a concession of sorts ...

Gardening is simply and absolutely NO fun at all, if you get very little to no yield for all your hard work! and I really, really want you all to love growing your own food!

Therefore, if you only have room to grow 4 or 6 plants ... sure, you possibly should grow a hybrid or two...  for insurance!
Just in case we have another terrible tomato year! That way, you will be fairly certain to get a decent crop of tomatoes.
Though they will not taste the same, okay, I really mean they will not taste as good, however and regardless, you will still have some fruit to eat and process.

However, if like me, you have room for lots of tomatoes, or you grow them under cover.. meh, why bother wasting any space on a hybrid ;)

This spring, in the greenhouse, I let folks wander about, choosing whatever size, shape or colour tomato they wanted to try.
Hmmm, perhaps I should have been asking more questions, helping them find the 'right' tomatoes for their particular situation?
I assumed that folks like to try new things and see how they do, but perhaps I should be finding out their situations first, so that I can offer suitable varieties to trial? Please feel free to give me advice and feedback on this thought? Help or no help?
Sigh, I just hate to feel like that pushy salesgirl, lol....

For my dear friend I hope that she will try heirlooms again next year. If she does, I will highly recommend only short season varieties of cherry and slicer tomatoes, staying away from the beefsteaks completely.

Check out The Hardy Pak for 6 heirlooms that are very hardy and early fruiting! This package and the others listed on this site were for 2012 and the varieites included may well change in 2013.

Heirloom tomatoes 2012 at the Nitty Gritty Greenhouse and Potager

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