You’re probably wondering, “What the heck are ‘Tom’s Toes’?!?!?!” Kate, are you actually going to talk about… Tommy’s toes? Well… yes and no. Today we are discussing all things tomatoes! But here at Third Way Farm (TWF) we call tomatoes “Tom’s Toes.”
Just to give you all a bit of context:
Tommy is always texting typos to the group. One day Muriel and I were busy doing our tomato tasks and we received a text from Tommy that said, “Are you two still working on the Tom’s Toes?” The name stuck and we’ve been calling tomatoes Tom’s Toes ever since. But we don’t stop the fun at the tomatoes. We also call Tommy Tom’s Toe because he once broke his toe when he jammed it on a wall after falling down a flight of stairs. Don’t worry, he’s okay!
Now let’s stop talking about Tommy’s toes and get into the nitty gritty of tomato culture:
Tomatoes are a summer crop that we sow in the winter time. This year we seeded our high tunnel tomatoes in February and our field tomatoes in March. We start the tomatoes in a 128 cell tray. This does not give each individual plant much room to grow, but that’s okay in the beginning. Once all or most of the seeds have germinated and grown a few inches, about 3 weeks, we pot up the plants. Potting up is a technique done when seedlings outgrow their growing medium. We take the plant out of its original cell and put it into a bigger pot. Now they get more space to grow. At TWF we pot up tomatoes in soil blocks. Essentially these are cubes of moist potting soil that act as the container and growing medium for the plant. This is a valuable tool in veggie gardening because it is less wasteful than the alternative of potting up into many individual plastic containers. Soil blocks also reduce transplant shock because they allow plant roots to air prune. This means that the roots stop growing once they reach the edge of the soil as opposed to roots in a cell tray that continue to grow and then wrap around the plastic cells. This tangle of roots makes it tough to remove seedlings from trays without disturbing them too much before transplanting. Another benefit of soil blocks is that it allows for more air flow which helps the roots grow healthier. We use soil blocks for several of our long term summer crops because they are going to be in the ground for a long time and are all large plants when mature. This includes tomatoes, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, and melons.
A few quick notes:
Before the seeds germinate, it is important to make sure the soil remains warm. We keep our trays on heat mats set to 84℉. Once germination has occurred for at least half of the tray, we move them under growing lights that stay on for 14 hours a day. The artificial light mimics the sun and allows the plants to photosynthesize. Without adequate light, the plants start to become leggy (long stems with few leaves) and will reach towards the nearest light. Additionally, as the tomatoes are growing in their soil blocks, and when they are in the ground too, it is best practice to avoid getting the foliage wet when watering. Water just around the base of the plant as this will help mitigate risk of fungal disease or the sun heating up the water droplets on the leaves and then burning them. And watering at the base helps encourage the root systems to grow. Finally, a couple of weeks before planting, you want to harden off your plants. This is done by putting the trays outside, weather-permitting, and moving them back inside at the end of the day. This helps encourage the plants to toughen up essentially before they are constantly exposed to the elements once they are in the ground.
So when is the best time to plant tomatoes anyway?
According to Gardening Know How, the right time to plant tomatoes is when the night time temperatures consistently stay above 50℉. The plants can start setting fruit once night time temperatures are at 55℉. These consistent temperature patterns usually occur after the last frost date. It's good to plant before the plants have the potential to set fruit because it gives them a chance to develop strong root systems and grow bigger before they shift their energy to producing fruit. This year, we planted our tunnel tomatoes on April 21st. Unfortunately, we experienced some late frosts that threatened our crop. We resorted to covering the plants with row cover for a couple of nights, a winter growing technique TWF has never had to employ on a summer crop such as tomatoes until now. Thankfully, all the tomatoes survived, but the first succession of summer squash did not. :(
As farmers, we look at climate trends to make educated predictions about best times to plant certain crops. With this knowledge we work backwards to determine a seeding date. The tomato plants take about 6-8 weeks to reach a stage where they are robust and large enough for transplanting, this is about 12-18 inches tall. We want to plant them after the last frost date, which is around April 9th for Havre de Grace, so we seed about 6-8 weeks before this date. Now, you do not have to plant immediately after the last frost date as this is just an estimate and you might feel safer waiting a bit longer. That is exactly what we did this year because of how the timing worked out for us.
Now it's time to transplant!
In the high tunnel we planted two rows of tomatoes in 30 inch garden beds. The plants were two trowels apart in the row, which is about 20 inches. In between the tomatoes we planted some flowers for pest control and some for cut flowers. This includes marigolds to fend off hornworms, scabiosa to attract bumblebees, and statice simply for fun. We also covered all the beds with straw as a means to weed control. It helps to retain moisture in the soil as well.
Another quick note: we have a high tunnel for growing tomatoes because it allows us to extend the season for tomato harvest compared to field tomatoes. We can plant a bit earlier because it is a protected space, which means we get ripe fruits earlier in the season. It also protects the plants from the elements at the end of the season, which means we can harvest a bit later as well.
At TWF, we grow mostly indeterminate tomatoes, which means that the plants continuously grow taller. As the plants mature, it is vital to prune, trellis, and clip them. Pruning entails snipping off all the lower leaves for good airflow as well as cutting off all the suckers that grow at the junction between the main stem and the leaf branches. This is important because if left on the suckers will grow into an entirely new tomato plant. This then steals energy away from growing fruits on the leader vine. Pruning is done once a week here and we make sure to remove all the debris from the tunnel because it could harbor disease. We just throw all the prunnings into the compost pile.
Trellising is a key technique for training the tomato plants to grow upright. There are endless methods for trellising tomatoes. We employ a few different strategies at TWF. What we do in our high tunnel is hook string to the metal bar above the beds. Each string is clipped to just one plant and we add new clips as the plant grows taller. At this point in the season, the plants have actually surpassed the bars and now we are clipping them horizontally. It feels like a jungle in there! Our field tomatoes have a similar trellising system, we just had to assemble it ourselves. The process included pounding posts into the ground after every sixth plant. We placed a PVC tee at the top of each post so that we could run rebar above all the plants. Now we have a structure to tie string and clip the plants. Another trellising system that is a bit more laid-back, and is what I did in my personal tomato garden, is to put stakes next to each plant and secure them together with either clips or string. This is a more practical approach for home gardeners. Overall, trellising is important for both the health and production of tomato plants as it physically helps the plants hold the heavy fruits, maintains adequate airflow to reduce fungal disease, gives the plants enough space to grow, prevents rotting because the fruits aren’t all sitting on the ground, and much more.
After all your hard work and a couple of months of the tomatoes being in the ground, it is time to reap what you sow and harvest your very own sun ripened tomatoes! Not all tomato varieties are red so it's important to feel for softness and not just look for certain colors. It's best to harvest when the fruits are a bit soft: you don’t want to wait until they are super soft because they are more prone to cracking and will not store very long. We harvest our tomatoes three days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays because we don't want them sitting on the plant too long and then they become seconds. We store tomatoes in a 50-55℉ refrigerator not a standard temperature fridge because the cold actually diminishes flavor and negatively affects the texture. Since we are growing our tomatoes to sell and we have so much to store we chose to refrigerate them at these higher temperatures so we can keep them longer yet still maintain quality. This is extremely important to us because we aim to provide our customers with the best produce we can grow. High quality produce is possible with hard work in the field, appropriate storage techniques, and thorough sorting of rotten/not so good items (that we feed to our animals so they don't go to waste). Whether customers get tomatoes in their weekly CSA, they are a chef at a restaurant, or customers at the market, we work hard to provide the tastiest and most cared-for fruits and veggies possible.
So what do you do with your bounty of tomatoes?
I eat tomatoes at almost every lunch and dinner while they are in season. They go great in sandwiches, on a salad, and thrown in at the end of a sautéed veggie dish. My favorite way to enjoy them, because it was a staple snack in my household as a kid, is with a slice of a baguette, mozzarella, basil, and balsamic. Yum! You can’t get anything else that tastes more of summer! I also did lots of tomato sauce and salsa canning this season so I can enjoy tomatoes over the winter. I froze a ton of cherry tomatoes so that I can blister and drizzle them with some balsamic for an elevated dish during the cold season. But most importantly, I enjoy this lovely time of the year when I can just walk out into the field and grab a ripe cherry tomato right off the vine and enjoy it! It's a sign of summer, a sign of bounty, a sign of God’s love. How can we go from a single seed to the most tasty summertime treat with just a little TLC? There is no other explanation than God and the miracles He created to produce just one tomato. So enjoy these last few weeks of summer and savor those tomatoes while they are here. Please visit us at our Barn Store or the Havre de Grace Saturday Farmer’s Market to get some. Maybe even start planning your tomato garden for next year so you can appreciate this labor of love for yourself. It makes the tomatoes taste so much better! Or should I say, Tom’s Toes.
Comment below what you’ve been doing with your tomatoes this summer. We would love to hear from you all!
Until next time,
The Return of Robinhood
Nestled into a hidden woods on Robinhood Road, in Havre de Grace Maryland, exists a picturesque farm community; a place of green pastures, beautiful woodlands, and colorful fruits and vegetables. And in this thriving place, a place called Third Way Farm, there is also a community on a mission to build a better world through a holistic and regenerative approach to agriculture; a mission grounded in our faith and our belief in a world where all have a place at the table. Where, when we give back to the land, and to one another, all of creation thrives.
We are farming on land that was once inhabited by the indigenous peoples of the Piscataway and Susquehannock tribes. We recognize that this land was unjustly taken from them without their permission. We hope our lives upon and care for this land will honor their legacy and wisdom in living harmoniously with this place.
Third Way Farm, LLC
Barn Store Hours
601 Robinhood Road
Havre de Grace, Maryland 21078
Barn Store Hours
601 Robinhood Road
Havre de Grace, Maryland 21078