A recipe for alpine tomatoes
Vail CO, Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” For all you produce gardeners, in order to have sweet corn by the fourth of July, you should be thinking about planting about now. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
I bought some sweet corn at the store last week simply because, according to the sign on the bin, it was grown in Florida. It was my way of paying homage to some corn farmer, or more likely an agricultural conglomerate, for the risks taken in order to be among the first with domestic sweet corn to market. The corn was pretty good.
This corn had to have been sown in January. Depending on variety, it takes about 2 to 3 months from sowing to get a ripe ear of corn. Not just frost, but cold temperatures in the 50s can wreak havoc during the time it takes to grow an ear of corn. Even southern Florida can get darned cold in January and February.
The tastiness of the corn got me to thinking about the lengths my father would go to ensure his friends had the freshest sweet corn available, short of truly home-grown.
My father owned a farm when I was a kid, a circumstance which I hold directly responsible for my being an agricultural dweeb living in an urbanizing world. On summer evenings, my Dad took great pleasure in calling friends and asking them to put a pot of water on to boil as he was about to deliver to them the best sweet corn ever. He would load the back of our Jeep with dozens of ears of corn just picked from his prized plot. Then, while I feverishly shucked corn in the passenger seat, he’d drive like a madman to their homes and personally place the ears in the boiling water. The corn was excellent because, back in the day, the sugars in those varieties of sweet corn converted to starch in about 30 minutes. His mad dash to boiling water circumvented that process. That’s not necessary with today’s super-sweet varieties. If kept cool, they remain sweet about a week.
Which led me to thinking about the lengths people will go to grow tomatoes up here. Fortuitously, about the time I was grilling up the sweet corn, a friend called and informed me that his tomatoes had been sown. I’m thinking to myself, “What ” are you nuts?” He’s assuredly sane, but his call reinforced for me that there are produce gardeners, and then there are them there tomato people.
It’s difficult to be one of them there tomato people when you’re living this high. Most tomato people live down yonder where the average night temperatures are above 60 degrees in summer. Tomatoes require night temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees at night during pollination to set fruit properly. In fact, tomatoes must have a minimum soil temperature of 55 degrees to even grow.
That’s not a problem where there are hot summer nights. In places such as those, tomato contests are sometimes held to see who has the first ripe tomato of the season. Sometimes people wager on who can grow the biggest tomato. The stakes can get quite high.
Up here, summer night temperatures don’t average even 50 degrees, The tomato stakes typically just hold up the vine, and the competition is against the elements to see if a tomato can be grown ” period.
Pondering the dilemma of what to do with my friends tomato seedlings got me to thinking about how I would go about winning the first tomato on the block tomato sweepstakes if one were held in this valley. Here’s my plan:
First, I’d select an early variety of tomato, something that matures in about 50 to 60 days. I like Early Girl at 52 days to maturity, because of its reliably good flavor, but, to win the first prize, Siberia might be a better choice at 45 to 50 days to maturity and its freakish ability to set fruit at lower temperatures closer to 40 degrees.
Second, I’d sow seeds about now in small paper coffee cups with a hole poked in the bottom, two seeds per pot about a finger width apart, filled with commercial potting mix ” nothing too fancy. They’re just tomatoes. I’d set a half dozen cups in a south or west facing window. Because the growth of a tomato is checked when they become root bound, as the roots reached the sides and the bottom of the cup, (about 3 weeks), I’d select the best looking seedlings by pinching out the weaker of the two from each cup and transplant the stronger of the two into 6-inch terra cotta clay pots filled with commercial potting mix. Oh, remove the cup. The clay pots’ ability to wick, and also its’ ability to breathe will keep the seedling roots from remaining wet for a long period of time if I happened to over-water.
When the roots reach the sides and bottom of the clay pot (about 3 to 4 weeks), I’d transplant the two best plants into a 15 to 20 gallon black plastic nursery container ” removing the pot carefully so as not to break up the roots. The soil would be 50 percent commercial potting mix blended with 25 percent topsoil, for the mineral content, and 25 percent composted, organic manure, for the nitrogen. I don’t have a preference on the manure type. Pick your favorite.
I would water no deeper than 8 inches for the first week, and I would let the soil dry to the color of dry coffee grounds before watering again. I’d fertilize once a week using any commercial, water-soluble fertilizer for house plants at the labeled rate. I’m not obsessed with fertilizer types. Someday I might write about that.
On days with a warm forecast, I’d set the pot outside, and then bring it in again at night ” all spring and summer. Moving the pot in and out accomplishes three things: One, it’s our cool night temperatures that delay or prevent fruit set. It’s above 60 degrees at night in my house.
Two, the jostling of the blossoms moving the plant in and out will guarantee pollination. Although tomatoes have perfect flowers ” flowers containing both male and female parts ” they often fail to pollinate. Greenhouses use a gadget called an electric bee to ensure pollination occurs. Bumbling about with the pot will accomplish the same thing.
And, three the black plastic of the pot will absorb the sun’s radiation and warm the soil on cool days. On hot days, the top part of the plant will be cooled by mountain breezes. A tomato will take the heat generated as long as the top of the plant remains cool.
That’s my plan. Just let me know what the stakes are. Award winning or not, I’m fixin’ to eat home-grown tomatoes this summer ” along with some Genovese basil grown in a similar manner.
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