As anyone who has attempted to grow a vegetable garden can tell you, tomatoes can be some of the most rewarding, frustrating, challenging, and, at times, infuriating plants to grow. They can be temperamental, even fragile, and sometimes you can do absolutely every single thing correctly (or almost correctly) and you still lose your crop. There are bugs, fungi, worms, viruses, bacteria, blights, rots, and everything else in the world that can kill the plants, the fruit, or both.
In fact, at times I’m surprised there are enough tomatoes successfully grown in the world for us to have things like ketchup or pasta sauce.
In case you can’t tell, this year’s been a rough one in the garden.
This year we built and planted two raised bed boxes in the back yard and things got off to a somewhat inauspicious start. Building the beds went well enough, and I planted four tomatoes and three cucumbers in one, two tomatoes and three cucumbers in the other. I would plant some super-hot chilies in the second box later, but at the beginning they both held tomatoes and cukes, and that’s it. The first box seemed to be growing pretty well for the first few weeks, but the second box we built and planted about a week after the first seemed to be stunted for some reason. In the end I had to sit out most of a morning to figure out that a large bushy tree that I’m pretty sure is a crepe myrtle that’s never bloomed was blocking about 80% of the sunlight getting to that second box. So, I leveled that bush and the plants in that second box really took off and started growing.
It was about this time that the cucumbers began showing signs of a common virus in plants bought from big box stores (like mine), cucumber mosaic virus. The leaves had the telltale mottled appearance, they were misshapen, and the fruit came out in odd shapes and colors after the first blooms. So the entire cucumber crop was a loss from the beginning. Not the best start, but the tomato plants were doing great. I put a little Epsom salt around the bases about 3-4 weeks after planting because they were yellowing a bit around the edges of the leaves, and they were good.
Twice I fertilized with low nitrogen fertilizer designed, so it said, for tomatoes, and it seemed to work on the plants. I don’t know that I’ve ever grown healthier looking, larger tomato plants than these. Just check out the photo, they are HUGE. And this isn’t even their maximum growth, this was when they were still building. In the box with 4 tomato plants it looked like a miniature old growth jungle. Even at midday the sun was completely shaded from the bottom of that box by the tomato canopy overhead.
Then, the tomatoes started bearing fruit. To start with I had a problem with blossom end rot. This is the true scourge of all tomato growers, the dreaded BER that can take out an entire crop if you’re not careful. Turns out part of the problem was the tomatoes had grown out of the top of their cages and the stems were bent, restricting fluid flow up from the roots to the fruiting branches. After a few weeks, though, the scars on the stems healed, the fluid transfer got better, and I increased watering in the meantime quite a bit to compensate. I lost about a dozen tomatoes in all, but I got the BER under control and stopped seeing black spots on the green, developing fruit.
At that point I thought I had won. I was wrong.
I had about 50 fruit on the six plants that was starting to turn light orange, a good sign for maturing fruit on tomatoes, and then we had a vacation coming up and I started doing some mental math. Most of the crop was going to ripen about two days after we left for a week-long trip to the mountains. I was a little bummed by this, but not too bad. I mean, if it’s between working in a makeshift garden and a trip to the mountains, I’ll take the mountains any day (sorry tomato babies). And sure enough, when we got back home, the interruption in the watering cycle had restarted the BER process. A lot of the fruit had the dreaded large black spots on the end, and had to be chucked.
I expected that, though, so it wasn’t that big of a shock or a loss. I still had a good bit of fruit left, maybe have the crop or so by the time I got the BER back under control. If it had held at that, I’d have counted it a win, and moved on to the canning process. Unfortunately, things got worse quickly. I started noticing little flat spots on the sides of the fruit that would quickly develop black spots, expand, and then ruin whole fruit in a matter of 1-3 days. I’d never seen this particular form of nasty on tomatoes, though, so I had to do a little research to find out what it was. Long story short, I was dealing with a fungal disease called anthracnose. The fungus causes those little flat spots, that then rot, and spoil entire fruit. The spores from the fungus will also transfer from fruit to fruit until it affects an entire crop.
Some of the fruit had long brown scars caused by defects in the flowers that caused tears in the fruit skin as it developed. I’ve found maggots from fruit flies invading four fruit on one vine where the fly eggs hatched in holes pecked by birds or eaten by squirrels. There are holes that look to be from the tomato fruit worm, a nasty little critter that will bore into and devour entire ripe fruit from the inside out, spots scalded by the 98 degree southern sun, aphid damage on the leaves. I could keep going and going.
I’ve sprayed fertilizers, applied insecticides, and am currently treating for the anthracnose fungus. I’ve been fighting BER all season as well. And still, with all of that work, I’ve only managed to salvage about a third of the crop that I would have had without all of the problems. The really frustrating thing, though, is that while I’m dealing with all of these various problems with the fruit, the plants themselves seem to be about as healthy as they possibly could be. I mean looking at the plants I should be getting buckets and buckets of tomatoes off them. As it is I’ve barely managed to get enough for a few fresh tomato sandwiches (a true southern delicacy) and some burgers. I’ve even thought about harvesting the rest of the fruit green and frying them (another southern delicacy) just to make sure that I get some use out of the fruit. Most of the diseases my crop has been plagued with thus far are ripe fruit diseases, and leave the young green ones largely untouched. For now.
Sadly, I’ve had to let go of the dreams I had of canning quarts and quarts of tomatoes to preserve for cooking later in the year. I was super excited back when the plants were healthy, most of the fruit was green, and I had 38 individual tomatoes on one of six plants, all of which were similarly loaded. Instead I’m happy and thankful to harvest what I can, and hopefully use what I harvest. This year’s experience in the garden has shown perfectly how tomatoes can be challenging, rewarding, thrilling, frustrating, infuriating, and even soul-crushingly disappointing plants, all within the same season.
Happy gardening, and I hope y’all’s tomatoes this year are doing better than mine…