In May, my husband Donnie planted 31 tomato plants, everything from Bush to Rutgers, from stalk to vine, in cages, on espaliers, and just trailing the ground. No small feat on small footage; we live on less than half an acre in the crowded heart of Mayberry, and about 60% of that is house, driveway, and garage. Donnie cut down trees to get optimal sunlight, had a crosstie wall built for a terracing effect that increased our growing space, and crept his garden into the neighbor’s side yard (with permission and tomato-picking privileges included).
In late June, Donnie announced in despair, on social media, that the tomatoes were dying. Being a glass-half-full person, I refused to believe this and so stated, also on social media. We were counting on those tomatoes! In fact, I had developed a zesty tomato soup to use up the last of the jars of red juicy fruits from the previous year (recipe below). I figured that, about the time the new ones came in, the old stocks would be finished.
But my optimism was washed away by rain after rain after soggy periods of temperatures in the nineties, followed by more rain, lightning, high winds, and humidity that put sweat on my brow as soon as I strode out the door at 5:30 AM, when I am accustomed to walking my morning mile.
It wasn’t long before I had to admit Donnie was right (in private, of course, not on social media!). The tomatoes were dying on the vine, and it was not a pretty death. I realized for the first time that no matter how bad a performance or a speech might be, throwing a rotten tomato at someone is a strategy that should only be undertaken in the most extreme case.
Based on minimal web research (about ten minutes), my first theory was that our little orange darlings were afflicted by BER (blossom-end rot). It’s not a tomato disease, but a “disorder” and is usually an indication of calcium deficiency in the soil. But this was not so. For one thing, from the get-go, Donnie was out with the lime wagon. He cosseted every tomato plant, dusting each one, but careful not to add too much of anything. He set up drip hoses and absorbent anti-weed cloth, and he staked and caged and calculated distances between plants. He mixed his varieties. He was ever vigilant. Besides which, he noted that the rot on our fruits was generally on the side, not the blossom end, so it could not be the dreaded BER. It started as anything from a brown, unpleasant “place” on a green or even pink tomato, to a clearly water-logged blister. But despite his Herculean efforts, Donnie could not control or conquer the malady, which he identified as a fungus caused by an unavoidable circumstance: too much water from too many heavy rains.
One thing was clear: if we left these ugly remnants to fester, they would soon begin to ooze and attract flies and create even more fungus. Yuck! The best solution for what is left of the once proud plants is burning… but every time we plan to do that, it rains again!
Oh, and did I mention cracking and splitting? According to Charlotte Glen in the (Wilmington, NC) Star News Online, “heavy rain…is the leading cause of cracking and splitting in tomatoes…soil moisture levels cause fruit to expand quicker than the tomato skin can grow.” Then there’s wilt and droop. And the sad fact that tomatoes picked early will not be as flavorful as those left to “vine ripen.” All in all, Glen opines, “Recent heavy rains are … raising the stakes against a bumper crop this season.”
Here’s what the majority of our tomatoes look like now: glowing pink on one side, bruised and cancerous on the other. Those that don’t look like that have already slipped into full-scale rot, a gooey mess, often resulting in an explosion of noxious pus-like ooze when touched—and with the rot comes a nasty stench. The stench of death. The plant leaves are black. The few green tomatoes are hard as baseballs and probably about as tasty. All of it—stalks, goo, and green baseballs—will need to be removed, the soil turned, limed, and left to recover for next year.
Donnie and I are consuming the tomatoes we have as quickly as two people who love a good sandwich can (see my Homestead.org article, You Say “Tomato”; I say “All Right!), and we may get a few dozen quarts socked away. But it’s hardly what we’d planned. I think our worst suffering this summer comes from hurt feelings—how could Pacha Mama do us like this?
Then a friend visited from Ohio; Doug has real acreage, which he both gardens and rents out to a local farmer for field crops. As Donnie moaned his moan about the lost tomatoes, Doug said quietly, with a smile that may have bordered on a smirk, “Well, that’s farming.”
Well, it’s true: that’s farming, whether in Mayberry, Malaysia, Ethiopia, or Hunan. Planning to can can be a poor plan. We who grow our own crops without industrialized interventions, or even with them, are, in most cases, still completely dependent on Mother Nature. Surprise! Food comes from nature, and nature has its own mandates. Our tomatoes were not on Mother Nature’s “save list” this year.
It’s no secret that weather has never been tamed, and probably never will be. As Mark Twain is credited with saying, “A great, great deal has been said about the weather, but nothing has ever been done about it.” The Great Depression was sparked by the unseasonal whirlwinds of the Dust Bowl, which were allowed free passage by men not doing anything to block them. Hurricanes often destroy houses built by foolish people who have more faith in the power of insurance, which can fail, than in the power of Mother Nature, which is invariably superior. In the extreme season, crops fail for an entire country, provoking the Biblical-scale terror: famine. It doesn’t take a tsunami, or even a vast flood, to destroy what man (including Donnie) has planned, if Mother Nature decides to have a “wet year.” Climate change is working Mother Nature’s will, whether we will it or not.
This year, in the American South, the weather has followed the classic Indian monsoon pattern. However, in India and other monsoon-prone regions, the monsoon is a blessing, converting desert patches into green swaths for a few refreshing, crop-producing months. Here, everything started out green. Our “monsoon year” has made greenery brown, leaves black, stalks limp, stems broken and fruit just… dead.
At this point, we might take some household hints from the India and Internet. The current weather in Bangalore is much like ours here in North Carolina: rain every day, with a few periods of sunlight to give you false hope. The Indian solutions to the monsoon blues, absent arctic levels of air conditioning, include incense and vinegar to banish the inevitable indoor mustiness that the rains bring with them.
Of course, we are just two people with other resources who love our homegrown bounty: tomatoes, squash, onions, lettuce, blackberries, and this year the added newly planted fig trees and raspberry strikes to intensify our gardening delight. We are unlikely to perish for lack of tomatoes.
But sometimes, people, many people, die or suffer deprivation for lack of a staple crop. What can humans do then, to override the indomitable whims of our Mother?
The Sam Roberts Noble Foundation, an Oklahoma-based non-profit that helps farmers and ranchers, recommends plastic sheets. I have to admit, though I have come around to using some of these modern-fangled products (like absorbent black weed-protecting cloth), I do have a bias against plastic. Plastic is inorganic, it’s unattractive, it’s a forever product that in large quantities can’t be easily disposed of. But S.R.N.F. recommends peaks of plastic to ward off rain and excess heat, with lots of staking to prevent plants from being destroyed by the plastic itself in case of high winds. Even better, perhaps optimal, if you have little to no confidence in the prevailing weather patterns, is the “hoop house”:
“If you’re interested in taking crop protection to the next level, consider constructing a hoop house, whose primary advantage is convenience. You don’t have to remove a cover to gain access to your plants; you simply walk in! Hoop houses are generally Quonset-shaped structures constructed of metal or plastic hoops. They are covered with a single layer of 6-mil greenhouse-grade polyethylene film and are vented by rolling up the sides. There is no permanent heating system, and there are no electrical connections. The ends of the houses are framed and covered with poly film or other transparent materials. You can place a door in the end walls or make them completely detachable, permitting better access. Compared to greenhouses, hoop houses are relatively inexpensive at $1.50 to $3.00 per square foot.”
I’m envisioning plastic “raincoats” for our tomato plants. I think the possibilities are worth considering, although, like any other intervention, or no intervention, this will still require daily attention. Plastic covers have to be constantly tightened, loosened, raised, lowered… and maybe even protected by other covers! But by building a tomato tent we may be tempting Mother Nature, for, as humorist Dave Barry opines, “It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds, for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”
Genetically altered seeds are another modern response to Mother Nature’s ravages. Arguably, such tampering, as spearheaded by Nobel Prize-winning agriculturalist, Norman Borlaug, ended famine in India forever. Borlaug, a farmer by his Norwegian heritage, was known as the “father of the Green Revolution” whose developments are oft-touted: crop dwarfing, double-season growing, and genetic multi-lining of seed varieties for increased disease resistance. Borlaug, a modernist of the mid-twentieth century, was interested in bending agriculture to the will of man in order to serve the poor, not in glorifying traditional methods that, in his estimation, had served them so poorly.
But many traditionalists also claim to have developed simple, organic ways to subvert the damage and destruction that weather can bring. Most of these interventions deal with arid climates, and rightly so. To its credit, S.N.R.F. researchers—they of the plastic hoop houses—also advocate permanent raised beds as an ideal way of aerating soil and maintaining crop health in the very dry climatic conditions of Oklahoma.
The raised bed can turn damp, clay soil into friable, dryable soil by the introduction of sufficient organic matter such as straw. The raised-bed system employs both water conservation (storing water in the innards of the bed by use of organic nests) and water shedding, employing the theories of Isaac Newton regarding gravity. Water flows downhill, off the sloping sides of a well-constructed raised bed. Raised beds were developed in Europe where rain is ever on the horizon. The problem with raised beds is that they are devilishly hard to get started (see my article, Can You Double Dig It). And in a good, normal, usual, typical year in North Carolina, raised beds are perhaps overkill for a humble urban tomato grower.
On balance, I have to come back to our friend Doug’s words of wisdom: “That’s farming.” The farmer proposes, Mother Nature disposes. Even Jesus of Nazareth correctly pointed out that, “It rains on the just and the unjust.” It’s fair, ultimately, that everyone who grew tomatoes in North Carolina this year, whether a global warming acknowledger or a global warming denier, an organic true believer or a chemical fertilizer dumper, will almost certainly be gnashing his or her teeth now at the appearance of a well-planned tomato patch gone to the devil: fungus-infused, moldy, cracking, splitting non-tomatoes, black limp leaves, collapsed stalks and smelly, disgusting goo.
We have a few new tomato plants that are slowly coming on, started late, and in them, we have vested our hopes and dreams for some fall canning. Hard to believe, perhaps, but we still have faith in Mother Nature to give with one hand what she has just taken away with the other!
Oh yes, about that recipe, recommended for the fat years of tomato abundance:
Barbara’s Homemade Zesty Tomato Soup
You will need:
- 2 quarts of HOME CANNED tomatoes (we can ours with a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon of lemon juice per jar for lovely citric savor)
- One quarter cup olive oil
- One large onion
- One tablespoon minced garlic
- Chopped greenery to taste/season: celery, mustard greens, arugula, spinach
- Herbs to taste: we have homegrown thyme and rosemary, but store-bought oregano or basil will do as well
- Salt and pepper
Pour the tomatoes into a crockpot, followed by two full quart jars of water. With your (clean) hands or an egg-beater, tear the tomatoes into small chunks. Simmer the garlic, onion and any greens in a large frying pan with the olive oil. When soft, add to the tomato/water mix. Top with herbs and liberal lashings of salt and pepper to taste. Leave in crockpot on High for three hours, or on Low as long as you like.
You can also add rice or pasta to this soup.
Makes about 12 large bowls full. Easily frozen. Great for unexpected guests.
Serve with toasted cheese sandwiches for a true American lunch or supper.