It Takes a Neighborhood to Raise a Tomato

My interest in the communities that make up the garden is often less about practicalities and more about taking cool pictures of whimsical insects.  However, the interest and respect that guides me as a photographer is the same as the philosophy behind SLUG’s agricultural practice.  When we think about increasing yields from the garden, we look for ways to mitigate insect and microbial pests and increase soil nutrition and moisture capacity by maintaining balance in the ecological community.

Because of our fall-term-oriented production schedule, many of our beds don’t get planted until many weeds are well established – Canadian thistle is our worst enemy in this respect.  For many of our plants, we avoid the endless weeding battle using a technique called lasagna gardening.  After a cursory weed or mowing, we cover the bed in thick newspapers to deter weed shoots.  For tomatoes, we place a 6-8 inch layer of unsifted finished compost and transplant seedlings directly into it, burying most of the stem to foster a large and sturdy root system.  Other plants prefer a mix of sifted compost and soil.  Even though the thick compost makes these beds among the most fertile in the garden, they are the least weedy because of these physical barriers.

After transplanting, we mulch with straw to maintain moisture.  The humus and woodchips in the compost hold water and release it slowly, while the straw shades the soil and limits evaporation.  Our tomatoes are big drinkers!

To deter pests and increase the productivity of each bed, we transplant chives along the edges and basil down the center and edges of most tomato beds.  According to garden folk wisdom, the aromatic compounds in both are repellent to pests – while both are delicious to us, take a bug’s eye view by imagining biting into a chive wider than your bed.  Our honeybees love the chive flowers, and they are one of the only things flowering during the so-called dearth, when there is little food available for bees.

A SLUG honeybee on a chive flower in May.

Our tomatoes are supported by twine wires running the length of each row.  These wires train the plants to grow in easily harvestable rows and also support the weight of many heavy fruits.  Our progressive trellising system makes it apparent how fast these guys grow – we often have to add higher supports two or three times in a week!

Our trellising system – metal stakes with orange twine. Chives are in the foreground and basil is the bright green in between.

A rich crop of pendulant cherry tomatoes. A basil leaf snuck into the photo on the bottom right corner.

Our tomatoes are supported by twine wires running the length of each row.  These wires train the plants to grow in easily harvestable rows and also support the weight of many heavy fruits.  Our progressive trellising system makes it apparent how fast these guys grow – we often have to add higher supports two or three times in a week!

The work doesn’t end with a beautiful mature tomato plant – all those flowers need pollinating.  And not just any pollinating: tomatoes, like many members of the nightshade family, require buzz pollination, in which a bee vibrates its wings while sitting on the flower to shake pollen loose from the stamen to the bee’s pollen baskets.  (Amazingly, bees attract pollen to the hairs on their pollen baskets using static electricity).  Honeybees are excellent pollinators, but they are not adapted to the habits of native American plants like tomatoes; they cannot perform buzz pollination.  Only bumblebees can accomplish this important feat.

However, bumblebee hives emerge much earlier in the season than tomato flowers, and they need other food plants to provide for them and attract them to the garden.  To feed and attract bumblebees, along with our own honeybees and many other wild bees, we have established borage, a self-seeding annual, all over the garden.  It is beautiful, and it brings all the bees to our “yard.”  Our bumblebees are uniformly Bombus impatiens, the Common Eastern Bumblebee.   Hopefully we can welcome other bumble species to the garden in the future by increasing our “insectary plantings.”

 

Bumblebees bring up another garden friend: mice.  Mice enjoy nesting in underground burrows, hay stacks, and dormant compost piles.  Abandoned nests are preferred nesting sites for bumblebees, whose queen makes a new nest each Spring.  While we may not like what mice do to our seedlings sometimes, but we appreciate the fact that they make nice homes for bumblebees!

Thus, we make tomatoes with the full cooperation and support of the garden community.  While we don’t allow the weeds to fulfill their ecological function (they are well-meaning but often overbearing and occasionally prickly), we do their job for them by adding rich compost to the soil, preventing erosion with mulches, and mixing plants with diverse flower types, rooting depths, and ecological functions.  We keep pests away to achieve our goals, but we understand both that we must share our place in the garden and that using blunt synthetic poisons would destabilize the predator-parasite-prey systems we rely on to mitigate pests.

-Adam

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