Tomato Update - Week 10

This hasn’t been a great growing season for me so far and these last few weeks have been even worse.

Just as a refresher, I found a tomato on the train tracks at Capua station in Italy this February and smuggled the seeds back to Brooklyn. Even though the seeds sprouted quickly, they didn’t live too long thereafter. Only five of the seedlings made it to week 6.

Now for the update. I only have room for four plants, so I gave a plant to one of my favorite pizza makers at Lombardi’s. The next day, I decided it was time to put the remaining seedlings in the ground. I had prepared a makeshift bookshelf planting bed and carefully mixed the soil with fresh compost before covering it with a black plastic sheet (to keep out weeds and retain heat/moisture). The plants were still really small and I’m pretty nervous about backyard creatures so I installed a short chicken-wire fence around my planting bed just to be safe. 

The next day, I awoke to a massacre. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a photograph of the destruction but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t. Too many emotions. The entire bed was torn up and my delicate smuggled Italian tomato plants were uprooted from their new homes. Who could have done such a thing??? Footprints in the dirt revealed the horrible truth: my upstairs neighbor’s adorable dog Finn had tomato blood on his paws.

I found all four victims and replanted them immediately, but only 1 survived the shock of “The Massacre.” He stands proud, living in spite of his traumatic past. We’ve been getting steady sunlight and rain, so the environment has been pretty good. Finn is no longer allowed out back by himself, but we rekindled out friendship and all is forgiven.

As you can see from the photo below, the tomato bed is pretty roomy. One of my neighbors gave me a tomato plant to express his condolences, so I planted it in the plot on the left. It may not completely fill the void left by the departure of my beloved smuggled tomato plants, but it does serve to honor them.

We have lots of other stuff growing this year, so I installed a water bucket to collect rain to help me water all those suckas. It’s pretty sweet, I grabbed an empty olive barrel from Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn (one of my favorite sources for cheese, tomatoes, oil, etc) and covered the top with cheap mesh screen. I still want to add some funnels to trap more rain, but the project will be ongoing as the season continues.

Tomato Update - Week 6

I am a murderer.

After planting my tomato seeds on April 6, I underestimated the growing power of an electric blanket and failed to notice that they had all sprouted within four days. I left the entire tray covered with a sheet of plastic wrap to keep in moisture, but the low ceiling inspired funky growth patterns in my cute little seedlings. I figured this was just a temporary flaw that would be fixed by nature, but it didn’t seem to go away even after days of even exposure to sunlight.

Beginning of Week 2, with funky growth patterns

But at least my plants were still alive. They didn’t look too pretty, but at they were standing upright and that’s more than I can say for them today. Am I using bad soil? Am I not watering them enough? Am I watering them too much? Am I depriving them of real sunlight? Well, maybe I was a bit of an overprotective parent but I kept my little seedlings inside because it’s dangerous out there in my Brooklyn backyard. We have one of the only yards in the area and apparently it’s the only place the wind can hang out because it turns into a tornado anytime there’s a light breeze. I was afraid the gusts would funk up my prized plants so I kept them inside. Little did I realize that depriving young seedlings of sunlight was as much a death sentence as I could give them, but I caught the mistake just in the nick of time.

Last year’s crop was probably too big for me to handle so maybe it’s good that some plants didn’t make it so I can concentrate on the strong few who did. These vines will compete for sunlight and the last thing I want to do is let them cramp eachother’s style. I only have room for four plants in my designated tomato zone, so it would be unnecessary to grow more than that. The remaining six tomato plants aren’t going to win any beauty contests but they were alive and that’s all I want.

Survivors - week 6

I can see that these wee lads are maturing because they are growing their first real leaves. This is an important step in every young tomato plant’s life because it shows some true characteristics of a mature vine. One day, they will be transplanted and only these mature leaves will show. It will be their triumph as the lonely survivors of the Class of 2011. I have to admit that it does make sense. Most of these seedlings were hatched from seeds I brought back from a tomato I found on the train tracks at Capua. The seeds survived the dangerous railroad, a long flight home, a close call with customs, and a good week or two of sunlight deprivation. They truly are fit for survival.

Mature leaves at week 6

If all goes according to plan, these little guys will go into the ground at the end of May. I have my soil mixed with fresh compost and covered with a sheet of black plastic. This will protect the soil from weeds while absorbing heat to warm soil in preparation for  my brave soldiers. 

So it all comes down to this. My seedlings have just over 2 weeks to show me they’re serious before they hit real outdoor soil. Today I caught myself looking at photos of last year’s tomatoes, hoping and dreaming that this year will be an improvement. It looks like I’m off to a rocky start, but I believe in the magic of tomatoes.

Tomato bed, made from a scavenged bookshelf, is ready for action


It looks like I flew too close to the sun. My beautiful tomato garden has been destroyed. Who’s to blame? I’ll tell you who: nature. For the past three days, New York has experienced weather more suited to Seattle. It’s constantly damp and gross, which is not good for adorable tomato plants. To be quite honest, I hadn’t checked on them for days. Rain means I don’t have to water them, right? NOPE! Rain means I should have thrown a tarp over them to stop wicked infiltration of unsolicited irrigation. I looked out the kitchen window this morning and saw this…

Those plants are supposed to stay vertical. I carefully tied the indeterminate vines to stakes with strips of pantyhose, as not to cut into the plants and prematurely end their lives. It looks like the weight of water droplets along with gusting winds was enough to take the plants down.

This is the reason great tomatoes are grown in Southern Italy and California’s central valley. Those regions don’t get rain in the summer, so controlled irrigation is possible. We’ll have to wait for next year to test the assumption that volcanic soil from Mt Vesuvius creates perfect growing conditions, but what good is soil below if your plants are at left vulnerable to nature from above?

Upon closer inspection, I found evidence of destruction left by yet another of nature’s dark warriors: rodents. It looks like a real jerk scampered around taking a single bite out of each ripe tomato.I know the photo seems blurry but I just wanted you to experience what it looked like through tear-filled eyes.

I was afraid this might happen so I’m glad I picked a few tomatoes while they were ripe, but it looks like the plants are out of commission unless I can fix them up tomorrow after the rain stops. In the meantime, I grabbed any untouched fruits and brought them inside. Now I have to learn how to can tomatoes. Sounds like a great project for tomorrow!

Here they are, the lonely soldiers who made it through the Great Tomato Ravaging of 2010. I’ll have more updates after tomorrow’s plant fixing / tomato canning operation is complete.

Tomato Update - GROUNDED!

Sometime in mid-March I planted a bunch of seeds I purchased from Tomatofest in California. Seedlings of several varieties sprouted: San Marzano, Super San Marzano, San Marzano Redorta and Roma. I spent weeks keeping their Styrofoam cup homes in direct sunlight and out of harsh temperatures. There were several times I thought the plants had stopped growing, only to find major developments the next day. This week, I took a big step and transplanted my little darlings into the Earth.

My neighborhood in Brooklyn has an industrial past, so I don’t trust the soil in our yard. I brought in some soil through some friends who are doing a massive gardening project in NJ and let it warm up in the sun for a few days. The next challenge was finding something to put the soil into, so I kept my eyes peeled and found a bookshelf on the streets of Soho right outside Lombardi’s! I dug up a hole in the yard in an area that gets the most sunlight and nested the bookshelf/raised bed into its new home. I’m only using the frame of the unit, so there is no back and only one shelf in the center for support.

These tomatoes are supposed to have lots of room, so I kept the plants super spaced out. I’m probably giving them too much space but I really want them to have a shot at survival. I covered the soil with black plastic to keep weeds out and moisture in. It will also help to keep the soil warm, which will make the tomatoes happy!

I’ll be modifying the setup a bit over the next few weeks, adding bamboo support posts for the plants and some chicken wire around the outside of the raised bed.These things have survived longer than I thought they would so I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll make it to harvest in late August.