Tag Archives: garden

A Visual Guide to SLUG Tomatoes – 2012




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.


The Faces of SLUG

Each year, a group of dedicated students elects to spend their summer maintaining the Sustainable Lawrence University Gardens.  I am pleased to introduce our summer gardeners, a fun, enthusiastic, and hard-working crew.  

Elise Massicotte

Major: Cello Performance
As someone who spends all of her time in the conservatory, getting outside in the garden is a welcome break.  I came to SLUG for the first time fall of my freshman year and discovered a love of beekeeping and getting dirty, as well as a great community of people.

Hava Blair
Major: Geology
I am thrilled to be spending a second summer in the garden working with such an amazing group of people. I have been interested in sustainable agriculture since my freshman year, and working in the garden has given me the experience and knowledge to move forward with local food projects and outreach around the Fox Cities area.  I love working in the garden because it provides a never-ending supply of sensory and intellectual experiences and interesting challenges.

Myles Wagner
Major: Environmental Studies, German

Myles comes from a southern suburb of Chicago, but has a love of forests, trees, and wild places. However, SLUG encouraged his interest in a broader spectrum of the environment and agriculture. Now he pursues a major in Environmental studies, along side his German major, and is dedicated to the people and plants of SLUG.

Adam Kranz
Major: Environmental Studies
Minors: Geology, Percussion
I am interested in the garden as a way for communities to get to know each other.  Gardening is an emotional and intellectual engagement with the living land, and it allows us to feed our families delicious food in an ethical and sustainable way.  I am particularly interested in bees, fungi, and the insane rush of life that is a compost pile.

Ashley Heun
Major: English
Minor: Theater

Growing up gardening was a dreaded chore amongst my siblings and I, well at least the seeding and weeding was however I was always willing to lend a hand during the harvest especially when we were at my grandparents’ house. Now that I am up at school spending time in the garden is my escape from the stress of school and the rest of the world, it reminds me of my childhood and the good times I had in my grandmother’s garden.

Hannah Plummer
Major: Environmental Studies
Minors: Music, Government

I became involved with Slug my freshman year; being a part of this nourishing community has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my time at Lawrence.  I learn something new in the garden every day (hairy vetch fixes nitrogen! Borage flowers taste like cucumber!), and always love visiting with the bees and weeding through the beds.

Ronan Christman
Major: Biology
Minor: Environmental Studies 
If you had asked me three years ago if you would find me in a garden, ankle deep in compost, I might have laughed out loud.  Luckily, my incredible freshman year roommate knew better. Though I always loved good food and the preparation of it, I was not involved in the production of it until I was introduced to SLUG.  It was impossible not to fall in love with the people, the space, and the food that comes from the garden.  Three years later, here I am.

Brenna Decker
Major: Biology
This summer I am the beekeeping intern. I have an interest in studying entomology in the future, and I am very exited that Lawrence now has hives on campus!
I have worked in the garden since my freshman year working mostly with the compost. Every Friday I would take a break from studying or practicing to take the pre-meal food scraps down to the garden. Since then I have been interested in vermicomposting, and have helped initiate the construction of a system inside our hope house. This summer has been a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge of the inner workings of the garden as a whole. Now I have experienced the garden, the apiary, and a little part of the orchard.

Polly Dalton
Major: Environmental Studies, Government

Polly’s curiosity for growing led her to SLUG
The people and atmosphere felt like a warm hug
The weeds, compost, and bees
have her in dirt to her knees
but into her heart and soul the community has dug.

Better late than never

It is hard to believe we are already half way through the summer down in the garden.  We are continuing to prep and plant beds for the first time this season.  Each day we work not only to maintain the beds we have established, but continue to draw back the blanket of weeds and seed something new.

One of the most surprising things I have learned about the SLUG garden planning is process is our ability to plant so late.  Growing up I had always assumed things were planted in the spring, greened and grew in the summer, and were harvested in the summer. To make our produce more available to the Lawrence community we push our crop’s harvest as late as possible.  We have the opportunity to plant more and plant earlier, but let’s face it, even the nine of us can only handle so much kale, beans, toms, and basil at one time.


Reflecting on this revelation in our garden planning process, it seems just another example of how the best time to start things — is now.  It’s never too late to get going.

As a transfer student this year, one of my worries coming into Lawrence University was that I would join the vibrant atmosphere of college too late.  Sure, my first year was swell at my previous school.  Trying to find a place in this new scene could be difficult, especially when friendships and social groups have already been established. I decided to dive in to my first year here in Appleton — and the experiences and friendships I have made are refreshing and energizing to say the least.

There’s no better time than now.  Perhaps, something has been put off until now because the right time to start is now. When you feel that itch to begin or you sense the momentum pushing you to move, the time to seed and lay roots, the time to begin, is now.