It’s been three weeks since my last gardening post. I thought it was a lot longer! Rereading it, I see that my past self was lamenting her lack of self-control because she got seeds for ten tomato varieties and a dozen or so varieties of other vegetables.
Past self: You are a total piker.
In the three weeks since my previous post, I have purchased seeds for at least fifty-seven varieties of tomatoes. Yes, I’ve bought so many that I’ve lost count! I have seeds for red tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, orange tomatoes, purple tomatoes, “black” tomatoes, green tomatoes, and pink tomatoes. I have seeds for indigo tomatoes (the tomatoes turn indigo blue where light hits them) of various flesh colors. I have striped tomatoes, bicolor tomatoes, and one variety called “Berkeley Tie-Dye” that has three colors in the flesh and multiple stripe colors in the skin. And of course I got “Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye,” which is not quite as colorful but beats some of the top-flavored heirlooms in taste tests.
Here’s a pic of Berkeley Tie-Dye. You can buy seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
And then I have currant tomatoes (tiny 1/2″ fruits), cherry tomatoes, salad tomatoes (1-3 ounces), slicer/beefsteak tomatoes, and gigantic (2-3 pound) tomatoes. I have round, oblong (paste-type), oblate, ruffled, and oxheart shaped tomatoes. (I don’t have any pear-shaped tomatoes, though – clearly an oversight that needs remedy. 🙂 )
I have tomatoes with normal green foliage, variegated foliage, and gray fuzzy foliage. I have tomatoes with normal leaves, wispy leaves, tiny delicate leaves, crinkled leaves, and potato-like leaves. I have indeterminate tomatoes, determinate tomatoes, and dwarf tomatoes.
I have joined the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, become a member of Tomatoville, and searched Tatiana’s Tomatobase and Seed Savers Exchange’s member exchange database for rare varieties I was hunting for. I’ve created a tomato database of my own to track my seed collection and growing notes. And I discovered that the newly founded World Tomato Society is headquartered in Los Gatos – less than fifteen miles from my house. I’m headed down there next week to talk to the founders, and find out more about their plans.
I have no idea why my friends are looking at me funny. Do they think I have a problem? Of course I don’t. I can stop any time. 🙂
I’ve also read two books about tomato history, a couple books about tomato growing, and a very interesting book about breeding your own plant varieties. I’ve decided that I want to breed the excellent flavor of “Fruity Mix” (my favorite tomato from the year I grew 83 kinds of tomato) into larger-fruited tomatoes. There’s only one small problem: “Fruity Mix” seems to have disappeared. I’ve searched all the tomato databases, Googled high and low, and can’t find it. Even the original breeder doesn’t have seeds. So – assuming my ex manages to locate my original seed packet – I’ve decided that my main goal, at least for this year, is to do what I can to preserve that strain. It’s a breeding pool, so there is quite a bit of genetic variability – I’m currently researching how to maintain the gene pool. It’s not as trivial as it sounds, because tomatoes are natural inbreeders, so under normal conditions you lose a lot of genetic variation in every generation. Heirloom tomato strains – which have naturally inbred for many generations – are pretty close to genetically identical. So if I want to keep the variation, I’ll probably have to do some crosses. But I don’t know yet how many crosses I need to keep enough variety. (Life is complicated.)
In addition to that, I want to try breeding Fruity Mix into larger-fruited varieties. Fruity Mix is a currant tomato, so while it tastes delicious, the fruits are tiny – maybe half an inch across. Better for grazing than harvesting. If I can breed its flavor into a larger tomato, it would make harvesting and using them much easier.
And, I confess, I also want to breed “art” tomatoes – tomatoes that are as beautiful and distinctive as they are tasty. One of the reasons I collected tomatoes with such varied shapes, colors, etc. was to create a pool of characteristics that I could breed from.
Because I’m a sick and twisted individual, I’ve also thought of some cool “art” you could do with tomato plants. For example, I could plant 5-10 tomatoes in a circle, and weave the vines together as they grow. The tomato equivalent of “lucky bamboo” or braided ficus trees!
And did you know that you can graft tomatoes? If I graft three or four varieties to each of four or five plants, I could grow them espalier-style against the wall of the house. And I could interweave the stems into a lattice, creating a “Tree of Life” look with all kinds of tomato colors, sizes, and shapes growing from the “tree”. (Growing it up against the house might also give enough warmth to allow them to survive the winter.)
(Once upon a time, my friends once proposed a new unit of excessiveness: the milliTien. I forget what my response was, but I’m pretty sure they thought it was excessive. 🙂 )
Now, I don’t have time for this. I mean, I really don’t have time for this. I would wish that there were three of me so I could actually do it all, except that I know darn well that if there were three of me, they’d just think up even more things to do. And, knowing me, they wouldn’t just think up three times as many things as I could alone, but more like nine times more ideas, because they’d just egg each other on.
No, that way lies madness.
But the good thing about tomato growing is that once you’ve got the plants set up and on drip irrigation, there really isn’t much work to do until the tomatoes start ripening. So I just need to get them set up first.
We do, however, have one small difficulty. Our soil is infected with verticillium wilt, a fungus that kills tomato plants. It can linger in the soil for well over a decade. So if I’m growing tomatoes, I need to grow them in containers.
Did you know that twenty 31-gallon plastic totes fit into a Prius with exactly a quarter inch clearance in most dimensions? Or that filling all those containers requires a dump truck’s worth of potting soil?
But hey, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. And moderation sounds like a dreadfully unhealthy (or at least boring) lifestyle.
I’m making the 31-gallon totes into self-watering containers using the instructions here. Here’s what the innards look like:
A self-watering container has a pool of water in the bottom and soil up top. There’s a screen in between, which keeps most of the soil from contacting the water and allows any excess water to drip out, so the soil stays well-drained. A small amount of soil is allowed to contact the water, which allows water to wick slowly up into the rest of the soil, keeping the moisture even. A drainage hole removes excess water, so there’s always an air gap between the water and most of the soil.
There are various ways to do this. I had originally planned to build my containers using the instructions for building an EarthTainer. This requires two containers for every completed self-watering pot. Basically, you drill a lot of holes into the bottom of one container, and put it into the other container, with a spacer in between. You drill a hole in the outer container a little bit below the level of the inner container, so the water has someplace to drain, and you cut a hole in the bottom of the top container and use that to create the soil “wick” to bring up moisture.
That was my plan, anyway. But somewhere around the 50th variety of tomato, I realized that ten 31-gallon self-watering containers weren’t going to be enough. I’d need at least twenty. So if I were going to use that method, I’d need to go back to the hardware store, explain that yes, I was the crazy lady who bought a Prius-ful of plastic totes a few days ago, and did they by any chance happen to have another Prius-load of totes for me to buy? And then I’d have to stuff another twenty 31-gallon totes into my Prius. Which, let me tell you, was a serious adventure the first time. (Not to mention all the funny looks I got in the parking lot.)
Plus, buying that many would be really expensive. And I’d spend the rest of my life drilling holes in plastic totes. (Did I mention that I don’t have time for any of this?)
And then I discovered this ingenious design by Al Gracian III. As you can see in the photo above, it uses 4-inch perforated drain pipe (capped at both ends) to separate the soil from the water. But there are gaps between the pipes, so a small amount of soil can penetrate into the water reservoir and act as a wick. A plastic tube inserted through the side of the container and into one of the drain pipes removes excess water. The 2′ length of PVC pipe at the far end allows you to refill the reservoir.
I built two containers over the last week – an initial one figuring out how it worked, and a second one to standardize the measurements and process. I’m testing the second one at the moment, verifying that it works properly before launching into mass production.
Here’s my test container:
You’ll notice it’s not full. That’s because I only had one big sack of potting soil available. The biggest bag of potting soil that most nurseries or big hardware stores carry is about 1.5 cubic feet. Anything bigger becomes too heavy and awkward for most people to carry.
According to my calculations, two of those big sacks wouldn’t quite fill this container. To fill it to the brim, you’d need 3.27 cubic feet of soil. (You can and should fill it to the brim, by the way – you’re watering from the bottom, not the top, so you don’t need to worry about runoff or washing away your soil.)
And I’m making twenty of these containers, so I’ll need 3.27 x 20 = 65.4 cubic feet of soil.
Soooo….go down to your local nursery (or hardware store with a nursery section). Look at their biggest bags of potting soil. And then visualize packing 44 of them into the back of your Prius and trying to make it home.
But really, bagged potting soil is only for people who are doing namby-pamby, miniscule scale tomato gardening. (In other words, “people who have some trace of sense”.) Those of us who are truly enthusiastic about our sport understand that the proper way to order potting soil is to go down to your local landscape and construction supplier and order it by the cubic yard. 65.4 cubic feet of soil is only 2.4 cubic yards! Why, that’s practically nothing. Even small dump trucks can deliver that much! And it’s less than half the cost of potting soil at Home Depot! And you don’t even have to put up with the horrified stares of people watching you trying to pack a half-ton of potting soil into your Prius. Win!
(It’s a really good thing that California legalized marijuana farming a few years back. Otherwise, I might find myself explaining my purchasing habits to the police.)
That’s where I am now. In a few days, after I’ve finished testing my prototype, I’ll make the other 18 bins and place the potting soil order. I need to clear my calendar the day it gets delivered, though, because the giant mound of potting soil will get dumped in our driveway, so Mike won’t be able to park there (and charge his car) until it gets removed.
Now, of course, I need to face my next problem, which is pretty simple: I have 57+ varieties of tomatoes and the 20 containers will only fit about 40 of them. Plus there are the dwarf tomatoes I’m testing for the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, and all the plants of Fruity Mix (if I can get the seeds and they all germinate) that I want to grow out, breed, etc. Fortunately, we also have a front yard…
I don’t have a problem. I can stop any time.