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OFB opinion poll #1. May 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben wants to know what you think. Specifically, I want to know what you think about upside-down tomato plants. Our friend Ben saw a whole lotta those this past weekend while plant- and potting soil-shopping at local nurseries. And I’m not happy about it.

We all know those horrible plastic bags of soil that you hang up and dangle tomato plants out of, sort of like a sausage that suddenly sprouted upside down. And now there are hanging “baskets” (you may think of baskets in terms of white plastic, but not our friend Ben) with holes in the bottom, out of which the hapless tomato plants hang helpless like the victims of Ghengis Khan or Vlad the Impaler. One ingenious retailer had even planted basil in the tops of these hanging planters, so you could presumably enjoy tomatoes and basil from the same container.

Our friend Ben just doesn’t get this. If God wanted tomatoes to hang upside down, He’d have given them monkey tails and sent them into trees. Mind you, I don’t see anything wrong with growing tomatoes in containers; see our earlier post, “The container tomato trial,” to find out about our own experiments with this. But there’s quite a difference between growing tomatoes upright in a container and having them hang upside down from the bottom of a bag or “basket.” I realize that it means you wouldn’t have to cage, stake, or otherwise support the growing plants. But frankly, that’s not a huge deal.

However, trying to water a container that’s high enough off the ground to allow a tomato plant to grow to its full height (or length, I suppose, in this case) would be a big deal. It would be an even bigger deal to try to hoist a container that’s roomy enough for deep-digging tomato roots to spread out. Our friend Ben thinks you’d need a support as strong as an arbor to hold one up, and a half-barrel-sized container swinging from on high strikes me as Monty Pythonesque. Not to mention the unfortunate truth that fullgrown tomato plants aren’t the most aesthetic botanicals on the block. Foliage yellows and spots, and often falls off; tomato hornworms make their stealthy way onto stems and leaves. Do you really want a mass of that hanging down in your face?

Well, maybe you do. Somebody’s definitely buying these hanging tomato gizmos, or the nurseries wouldn’t be selling them. That’s why our friend Ben is asking for your opinion. Do you use them? Do you like them? If so, sound off and change my mind. If not, let me hear from you, too: We right-side-up-minded gardeners need to stick together!

Note: For some very astute observations on tomato-growing habits in general, see David in Kansas’s comment, which unfortunately wound up with our earlier post “Frugal living tip #21” rather than here.


The container tomato trial. May 13, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was very interested to read a recent post by Vanessa Richins at TomatoCasual (www.tomatocasual.com) called “Dwarf Tomato Plants.” Vanessa was reviewing a number of tomato plants that were small enough to grow in containers, including ‘Micro Tom’, ‘Micro-Gold’, ‘Red Robin’, and ‘Tiny Tim’. She also mentioned The Dwarf Tomato Project (http://dwarftomatoproject.net/), a venture spearheaded by tomato lovers in Adelaide, South Australia and Raleigh, North Carolina who aim to breed smaller tomato plants for containers and limited spaces.

Our friend Ben was especially interested in all this because my vegetable bed space is limited, but my appetite for homegrown organic tomatoes isn’t. In addition to the heirloom tomatoes I’d planted out, I’d decided to trial one of my favorites, the hybrid orange cherry tomato ‘Sungold’, in a container just to see how it fared. Then, in one of those serendipitous occurences that occasionally bless us all, Silence Dogood and I stopped by the nearby Rodale Institute on Saturday to check out their plant sale. Silence was keen to see if they had any cardamom plants (jackpot!), and our friend Ben wanted to check out their tomatoes. To my amazement, they had seven different varieties bred especially for container growing!

I don’t suppose I need to tell you that I snapped up one of each. The Hawk’s Haven container tomato trial was officially underway. Rodale’s offerings would have been interesting even if I weren’t obsessed with container culture. They had ‘Maskotka Cherry’ (a red cherry tomato), ‘Vilma’ (a blackish-purple cherry tomato), ‘Smarty Cherry’ (a red grape tomato), ‘Husky Cherry’ (a red cherry tomato), ‘Polbig’ (a red roasting tomato), ‘Heartland’ (a 6-8-ounce red tomato), and ‘Little Sweetie’ (an elongated red cherry tomato). In addition to these, our friend Ben bought ‘Pride of the Trial’—or at least that’s what I thought the sign said. The tag in the transplant turned out to say ‘Pride of the Trail’, a rather different concept, and I’ve been unable to find anything about it online. Does anyone know anything about this variety? This one apparently wasn’t a container variety, but I thought I’d try it in a container anyway so poor ‘Sungold’ wouldn’t get lonely.

Back at home, while Silence was planting her coveted cardamom in the greenhouse bed and adding a few herbs to one of our outdoor raised beds, our friend Ben took the tomatoes out of their 4-inch pots and put them into the biggest utilitarian pots I could put my hands on, which ranged in size from sort of big to ginormous. I planted the tomatoes in a mix of potting soil and mushroom compost. My method was far from scientific: I put the biggest transplants in the biggest pots I had on hand and worked my way down to the smallest plants in the smaller pots, figuring that I could pot them up as I was able to acquire bigger pots. At least they all had room to stretch their roots in good soil. I also have some spare tomato cages to stick in the pots if any of the tomatoes show signs of getting out of hand.

Let the tomato trials (or, ahem, trails) begin! With our current nights in the 40s (?!!!), I have the pots in the greenhouse, but once it finally warms up, I’ll move them to a sunny spot outside. I’ll add liquid seaweed and SUPERthrive to their water, but probably won’t do anything else in the way of fertilizer since they already have the benefit of the mushroom compost. Unless, of course, they start looking miserable, in which case I’ll add some organic fertilizer—maybe a little guano or even some of our own homegrown chicken manure.

If anyone else out there is growing tomatoes in containers, I’d love to know what you’re growing, how you’re growing them, in what size pots, and how it’s going!