Gather round, folks, and you’ll hear the story of a tomato…
Terra Firma Farm has a reputation in these here parts for harvesting some of the first tomatoes of the season each year. It’s part luck: we have a tiny microclimate where the temperatures in the spring are warmer than many other spots in Northern California. And it’s part innovation — we have developed some tricks and tools over the years to get the tomatoes planted early and growing more quickly while protecting them from freezing.
In the end, though, it all boils down to the weather before and after we plant. We need at least two dry days before, with no rain and a light breeze or stronger, plus the day we are planting. And that’s no small thing in late February or early March.
February 2018 was plenty dry. But at the end of the month it got very cold and started not just raining, but hailing. Not conditions conducive to tomato success. So we decided not to roll the dice but rather leave the tomato plants in the greenhouse.
We got another chance two weeks later when the rain stopped and a dry wind kicked up. On March 10th, we planted the first tomatoes. That night, the temperature dropped to 32 degrees at 6 a.m. But we were prepared.
Tomato plants will die if exposed to frost or freezing temperatures for more than a few minutes. We can keep the air warm by running water from our wells through sprinklers set up specially for that purpose, even though we use drip hose to irrigate the plants later in the season.
We have a weather station in the field that calls our cell phones to alert us when the temperature drops below 36 degrees. When this happens, it’s generally just before dawn and we just have to turn the pumps on for an hour or two. Once the sun rises, it tends to warm up pretty quickly.
On March 10th, the “frost alarm” went off at 4 a.m. and we turned the water on for a couple of hours. But the next night, my phone rang at 11 p.m. We ended up running the sprinklers for well over 12 hours over a three-day period.
Terra Firma’s first tomato field survived its chilly start just fine. The same could not be said of the large canning tomato field our neighbor planted down the road. With no sprinklers to protect the plants from the cold, they were dead after the first night.
Had those three cold nights been followed by even a few warm, sunny days, we may have started harvesting tomatoes around Memorial Day. Instead, the rest of March alternated between cold rain and cold wind that continued into April. All small plants, when moved from the cozy warmth of the greenhouse to the harshness of an open field, suffer “transplant shock”. This condition usually lasts for a week or ten days, but for our early tomatoes it lasted over a month. By early April, the plants had barely grown.
Unhappy plants that aren’t growing are much more susceptible to diseases and insects that they might normally fight off. So our stunted early tomato field is like a website photo gallery of plant diseases with long latin names.
Still, we were amazed at how long the early field made us wait to begin harvest. With the sparse foliage, we expected the fruit to ripen quickly once the June sunlight started hitting. Instead, cool weather kept the tomatoes hard and green. We finally had a few hot days last week that got them going, and we were both happy and surprised on Monday to see a decent amount of ripe fruit.
The good news is that despite the late start to tomato harvest — our 2nd latest ever — the rest of the season looks promising. We have a total of 5 plantings of tomatoes, and the other four look very nice. We are keeping our fingers crossed.