My Tomato Adventure

[When I originally posted this, I was unaware that “Tomato Adventure” was the name of a video game, the name of another blog, and who knows what else. My post is in no way intended to refer to any other “intellectual” property so named. With the addition of “My” to the title, “My Tomato Adventure” is just that — my own personal thing. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.]

I thought I’d write about my recently concluded experience with tomatoes. It’s probably more in line with what people want to read about. There doesn’t seem to be much popular interest in boring stuff like politics and religion. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if my readership soars as a result of this article. But don’t get your hopes up. This is only a mood I’m in. I don’t intend to change my blog.

I am, for the moment, sick and tired of politics. How any rational person can think the Republicans offer any substantial solution to the myriad problems facing our nation is beyond me. To me, we’re on the slippery slope. Too many immature, irresponsible, self-obsessed Americans want their every perceived need taken care of by the government, without any concern for the burden placed on the taxpayers.

“From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” may sound wonderfully idealistic to many Americans, but that particular form of “sharing” is communism. It is fundamentally unrealistic, unfair and confiscatory. Simultaneously rewarding the less productive while discouraging the more productive, all forms of socialism stifle productivity and creativity. This isn’t just a theory. History has shown it to be true. And now we see it happening in our own country right now.

Anyway, not very many people seem to be interested in things that affect their freedom. They take it for granted, and don’t understand they’ll lose it for lack of vigilance. But if people don’t want to read about, think about or learn about how they can help to preserve their own freedom, then so be it. Off we go, then, to my tomato adventure.

Last year for Christmas (2010) my daughter gave me one of those Topsy Turvy planters. We had a long, cold, rainy winter and spring came a bit late. It wasn’t until April that I got around to putting my Topsy Turvy planter to use. We live in an upstairs apartment and our covered deck, which more or less faces north, is flanked by redwood trees on the left and liquid ambers on the right, filtering out most of the sunlight. Our only option was to hang the planter on the landing outside our front door, which has a south-eastern exposure. Our next door neighbor pointed out that the corner nearest her end of the landing got the most sunlight, so that’s where I decided to hang it.

The instructions in the box said that tomatoes need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. So I was happy to discover the plant would get just about that, from the time the Sun peeked over the roof of the building next door, until it passed beyond the eaves of our own building.

The instructions also said to get the very best quality potting mix… which supposedly comes from Canada. Lower quality potting soils have too many big chunks of wood, not providing tender roots with much to latch onto and not holding water well. At the nursery, I read the labels on the stacks of various potting soils, looking for something like “made in Canada” or “good for tomatoes”. Not seeing either, I asked one of the employees, who assured me their store brand was good for tomatoes.

The small bags held less than the instructions called for, and the large bags held way more than I needed, so I bought two small bags, which was still way more than I needed. As it turned out, the volume held by my planter was substantially less than the instructions had indicated. The illustrations in the instructions also showed a larger (longer) planter than mine, giving me the impression that mine was the new, improved (downsized) version.

Anyway, back to the nursery. I thought it would be a simple matter, buying a tomato seedling. Not so. They had rows of tables with just about every variety of tomato you could think of — varieties I never heard of, and knew nothing about. I had the impression that Topsy Turvy tomatoes would tend to be small because most of their photos featured cherry tomatoes. But since I didn’t want small tomatoes, I got a Beefsteak seedling.

I thought I was being very clever when I made a soil scoop out of an empty plastic soda bottle, cutting it into shape with a pair of scissors. But my enthusiasm flagged when I began trying to insert the root ball through the hole in the bottom of the planter. According to the instructions, it was just a matter of carefully holding the base of the stem with one hand, and guiding it through the hole, while holding the slotted foam disk (which secures the plant) with your other hand, and wedging the stem into the slot.

The only problem was the root ball wouldn’t go through the hole. As I tried to gently push it through, pieces of soil kept falling off the root ball. It was a few moments before I realized the fundamental problem. The hole in the bottom of the planter was round, while the root ball of the tomato plant was square. How diabolical, I thought. I set the planter aside for a moment, and focused on the root ball, carefully trying to sculpt it into a round form without destroying the roots. I stopped when I felt I was losing too much of the soil around the roots.

Once again, holding the plant in my left hand (which was starting to cramp up), I picked up the foam disk in my right hand, reaching down through the top of the planter, in expectation of slipping the disk around the stem. Once again, the root ball would not go through the hole. It still was too big. Sensing that something had to give, I pushed harder, this time with a twisting motion, shaving down the diameter of the root ball, even as it began to fall apart. By the time it actually went through the hole, I had no idea of how much of the roots were still viable. I was just glad to finally be able to push the stem into the slot in the disk, so I could rest my hands.

I had temporarily hung the planter on a long wire, which I was able to shorten, once the planter was filled with potting mix and the battered seedling had received its first watering. At last I hauled the Topsy Turvy planter up into place. This was on April 15. I really didn’t expect the plant to survive. I didn’t even take a picture of the poor thing. I was already anticipating having to empty out the planter and start all over again, next time finding a nursery that sold seedlings in round containers. But I was pleasantly surprised the next day to find the plant looking great. It didn’t wilt, the leaves didn’t turn yellow. It thrived.  Here’s what it looked like after three weeks.

That was the same day I noticed my dill weed had sprouted. If you look real hard, you’ll see the tiny sprout in the top, sunlit portion of the pot. Real hard.

Anyway, back to the tomatoes. The instructions said it was impossible to over water the plant because excess water would drain out the holes in the bottom of the planter. The instructions also said to water very, very slowly because potting soil (particularly dry) didn’t hold water well. Also, the instructions said to use any good tomato plant food (fertilizer) and follow the instructions on the package. So far, my little tomato plant flourished.

And, oh yes, let me not forget the dill sprouts. The seeds were free inside boxes of Triscuits. I couldn’t see wasting them.

I couldn’t find any more photos of the dill, but they grew to be about three feet tall and I tried using fresh dill in several recipes. Plus, they went to seed, so I dried and kept the seeds and I can plant dill again, if I’ve a mind to. But hey, I’m supposed to be telling you about the tomatoes, so let’s get back to them.

By June, the vine had begun to blossom and I was surprised at the size and strength of the branches as they climbed upward, almost reaching the top of the planter.

The vine continued to grow and the blossoms began to turn into tiny new tomatoes. But I noticed they were developing very slowly and the leaves seemed to lose their vitality. They were no longer a deep green, but looked dull and ‘pale’. I rechecked the instructions on the package of Miracle-Gro tomato plant food that I had been using, and discovered I had been under-feeding it by a huge margin. Once I had corrected my feeding error, the plant perked up almost immediately and resumed its healthy growth.

But as my tomatoes grew, I noticed many of them had blackish bottoms. I found out from the internet that this condition is called blossom end rot. It is caused by the insufficient absorption of calcium, which can result from calcium poor soil, watering irregularly or drought conditions. Although my tomato plant only got about six hours of direct sunlight a day, we had had some extremely hot days when the vine had wilted. I had then over-watered it, thinking that’s what it needed. After all, the instructions said it couldn’t be over-watered.

I tried different ways of adding calcium to the soil, including dissolving crushed Tums in water, which gets kind of gooey. But the method I settled on was using my coffee grinder to grind up dried egg shells into a fine powder, mixing it in a blender with water and pouring the resultant ‘milk’ into the plant soil. That, along with watering a little bit twice a day, instead of a lot, once a day, cured the blossom end rot problem. I lost thirteen tomatoes to that malady.

But it wasn’t until August that the first tomatoes began to ripen, and my heart swelled with pride.

 I picked the tomatoes as they ripened, and we began to reap the benefits of growing our own. For the next two months we didn’t need to buy tomatoes at the grocery store.  The vine continued to grow and become laden with fruit.

In the view below, the right branch eventually grew to be over six feet long. We had all the tomatoes we wanted. We gave a few away, but I must confess we ate most of them. I even used them for spaghetti sauce. They varied in size from as small as one and a half inches across to as large as three and a quarter inches across. Most of them were in the two and a quarter to two and a half inch range.

Fall came, the weather cooled, and as the angle of the Sun in the sky lowered, my tomatoes got less and less sunshine. By November, they were only getting about four hours of direct sunlight a day. But the vine was still loaded with developing fruit. It was taking longer for the water to soak into the planter, and when I tried digging at the soil to aerate it, I noticed it was matted with small roots. The planter, made of pliable material, didn’t budge when I tried to squeeze it. It was very firm. So, I figured the plant was root bound, which amazed me, as it was still growing and producing new blossoms.

When overnight temperatures dipped below freezing a couple of times, I covered the plant with an old sheet, which protected all but two low-hanging tomatoes which looked burned. I assume it was frost bite. So, I thought I’d pick them all green and let them ripen off the vine, since two green tomatoes which had earlier been knocked off the vine eventually turned red after I brought them inside.

After I picked these, pictured above, there were still a whole lot of small tomatoes remaining on the vine. I thought about picking them too, but I didn’t think they would ever ripen. And although we’ve enjoyed fried green tomatoes, I prefer them ripe, so I left the small ones on the vine.

I should have read about ripening tomatoes off the vine because I just let these guys sit on our kitchen table. Some of them ripened and we ate them, but we lost almost half of them because they dried up and wrinkled from lack of humidity. I learned later that you need to ripen tomatoes (along with a banana) in a closed bag or box. If the humidity is too high, they can mold and rot; too low, and they dry out.

Finally, a few days before Christmas, I picked the last of the tomatoes. I was surprised to find there were still several tiny tomatoes developing, no bigger than a pencil eraser. This was amazing to me, since neither the temperature nor sunlight were conducive to growing them.

As I was tossing the last of the tomato vine and planter into the dumpster, I was curious about the roots. So I cut the planter open, and indeed, it was root bound. I was impressed that despite this fact, the plant had produced so many tomatoes. Not counting spoiled tomatoes (blossom end rot, etc.) I lost count after I had harvested over one hundred tomatoes.

All in all, my tomato adventure was worth while. It wasn’t “easy”. It was labor intensive, in that I had to water it daily. And I was continually having to learn more about growing tomatoes as various problems arose. But the end product was enjoyable and worth the effort.

Most of all, my “little” tomato vine was a perfect illustration of John 15:1-10. Jesus said he is the true vine, God the father is the real Gardener (the part I played) and believers are branches in the vine. Our job as branches is to produce fruit. But too often, we act as if we are the Gardener, when we really need to leave that up to God.

Producing fruit, according to this passage from John, is simply the result of remaining in Christ, remaining as a part of the vine — which means loving and obeying the Lord…just that. We need to leave the heavy lifting and our daily care up to the Gardener.

After Word: This evening (January 19) I cut up the last of our tomatoes and put them in the salad (Yum!). Now we have to go back to eating store-bought tomatoes.

About retiredday

I am Michael D. Day, a regular, everyday guy -- retired. I stand for God-given freedom, which means I think for myself. I believe in being civil, because the Bible teaches that we should love our enemies. But I also believe in saying it how I see it, and explaining just why I see it that way, sort of like 2 Timothy 4:2.
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