Monday, July 10, 2017

Sometimes It Works Out Better

Early July is typically our target for mulching and caging our field tomatoes.  Some years it works out beautifully and others.... not so much. 

Our field tomatoes usually don't go in until the end of May, but have been known to wait until early June if the weather is difficult.  We even had one season where we couldn't plant any in our fields until June 20 (yes, the farmers were a bit stressed that season).  This year, we had a few plant dates with our earliest going into our Southwest field because it drains better than all of the others.
southwest field, tomatoes on the right
We prefer to give our tomatoes a few weeks to grow in the field before putting the straw down.  There are a number of reasons why that might be a good decision and some reasons why it might not be.  First, tomatoes don't like soil splash on the leaves, so you might think it would be wise to mulch earlier than later.  But, if the plants are very small, mulching can be very difficult.  And, we're not going to mulch in stages - that's just too labor intensive.

Tomatoes like warmth and we like the heat gain we get with bare soil earlier in the season.  Once we get to July, that heat gain isn't so important and the soil splash protection is. 
Rows cultivated, area around the plants weeded and the plants are pruned - now for straw mulch!
We prune our tomatoes right before applying the mulch.  This does make mulching easier since we get rid of all of the low branches and suckers and it also removes leaves that may have been in contact with the soil.  We pull these branches out of the area to avoid any spread of pathogen that might be possible.

Ah.. A farmer selfie after tomatoes in the east are mulched.
Typically caging or trellising is our last step.  Growers have preferences of all sorts for trellising (from letting plants sprawl to caging to Florida stake and weave).  We participated in a study several years ago researching trellising techniques and the determining factor tended to be the farmers' experience (or lack thereof) with the method.

We've been investing in collapsible square cages over the last few years and find that they match our labor requirements and farm tendencies better than other methods.  We use the stake and weave method in the high tunnels and we have another trellis method for one smaller field variety.  We have been moving away from the round cages we created from woven wire fencing and only have 50 or so that use those cages now.

2016 was not so friendly for our tomato mulching/caging efforts
 As of July 7, we completed all of our tomato mulching and caging for our field tomatoes.  Last year, our tomato field looked like the picture above on July 16.  You might notice cages at the left and right, but some missing in other rows.  You'll notice many weeds and no mulch.  Of course, some of the issue was the weather but the reasons are almost always more complex than just a bad stretch of weather. 

2016 post weeding session
Part of the difference in 2017 is a change in the distribution of the plants.  We split fields rather than having them all in one field this year.  We incorporated peppers, beans and eggplant with our east field.  The Southwest field tomatoes are sharing with short season crops (like lettuce, pok choi, etc).  We also shifted a few more of our tomatoes into the high tunnels now that we have Valhalla (our newer high tunnel) fully integrated into our growing system. 

We also simplified our life by removing the plant sales component (except for direct pre-orders) and reducing the number of varieties to about 20 as opposed to the 30+ in prior years.  We made a few changes in our bed-prep procedures that seemed to speed things up AND we had two returning workers this year.

Oh, and yes, the weather was friendlier this time.

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