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Of everything grown in the kitchen garden throughout the year, no harvest is more anticipated than that of our heirloom tomatoes.  Each year, even when schedules and daily life are too hectic to plant anything else, we make time to plant tomatoes.  A summer without garden fresh tomatoes, would be like a summer without sun.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Last summer was a very challenging season throughout much of California with cool coastal temperatures, and persistent fog lasting much later through the season than normal.  Harvests were delayed by at least a few weeks for most varieties.  Overall, despite a late harvest, yields were modest, but we hoped this season would prove to be a vast improvement.

At the start of the season we had plentiful, and promising rains, but our wet spring soon gave way to an unseasonably cold, dreary, and damp summer.  By mid-summer, while the rest of the country was melting in record heat, our dense marine layer produced thick, unrelenting coastal fog, at much higher elevations than normal.  This kept temperatures down, and increased humidity levels.  Some days, in the height of summer, we never saw the sun.

Noon, at the end of August, the temperatures should be soaring...not 56F with 93% humidity...and no sun

This translated into yet another summer where the tomato harvest was substantially delayed relative to previous years.  In fact, this is the first year that we’ve noticed a significant effect of the weather on actual fruit set, not just ripening.  Overnight temperatures were consistently below 55F, and some varieties, even the cherry tomatoes, struggled to set any fruit for most of the season.

Some varieties, like Blondkopfchen, produced lots of flowers, but failed to set fruit in the cool weather

It wasn’t all bad.  The first week of July we flirted with near 100 degree temperatures, around the time Jenny’s eggs hatched.  Little did we know though, that would prove to be the warmest weather we’d have all summer.  This is the first year since we’ve been at this location that we didn’t crack the century mark all season.

July 3, 2011, proved to be the warmest day of the year.

Despite the cool weather, the garden was looking promising by late July.  Unfortunately, the burst of heat over 4th of July was followed by persistent cold and damp, and coupled with the earlier vole damage to some of the tomato plant stems, this resulted in something sinister developing in the tomato garden, and for the first time we started using the F-word.  Fusarium.  By August we were hit with Fusarium wilt, hard.

Fusarium wilt. Note the dark brown discoloration on the stem.

We’ve never been hit with wilt, either Fusarium wilt, or Verticulum wilt. Unfortunately, as our entire tomato crop this year was growing on heirloom vines, on native root stock, none of the varieties we were growing were resistant to either organism.

The plants, like this Stupice, were off to a healthy start early in the season...but by August Fusarium wilt was wreaking havoc in the garden

Although this area is perhaps more prone to Verticulum wilt, Race 1 Fusarium wilt isn’t uncommon in this region.  Verticulum wilt can impact yields, but Fusarium wilt can kill entire plants, and that was certainly true for us this season.  By late August most of the plants in the garden were showing at least some degree of infection.

Early signs of wilt include yellowing of leaves on some of the stems. Dark brown discolored areas on the stem can quickly spread, and deprive any developing fruits of nutrients.

Some varieties, like Beam’s Yellow Pear, rapidly collapsed and died, long before there was any hope of fruit ripening.

It’s proven to be a very humbling experience this summer.  It’s true, there really is a first time for everything. Last season was less than ideal for tomatoes, but this season, for the first time ever, our tomato crop was a near total failure.

By August our tomato season should be ramping up. Instead the plants were rapidly declining.

Not all of the varieties we grew were a complete loss.  A few showed some promise in regards to being somewhat resistant to infection, including Salisaw Cafe, Argentina, German Red Strawberry, and an orange sport of German Red Strawberry that we propagated from our own seed this spring.  None of the plants thrived though, and those that did struggle to set fruit, and not succumb before the fruits were ripe, yielded far fewer fruits that were significantly smaller than normal.  This is how the season shaped up for the varieties we planted this season:

Argentina

Argentina – fruits were smaller this year, but the plants seemed relatively resistant to wilt, although not as resistant as our oxhearts. Set a modest amount of fruit, but struggled to ripen before season’s end.

Azoychka – poor yields, but we did enjoy a few modestly sweet, low-acid, yellow fruits before the plants succumbed.  Certainly showed promise, and we’d plant again.

Beam’s Yellow Pear – Our best performing cherry tomato last year, that refused to stop setting fruit, even after the first frost, this year was a complete and total loss, and the first variety to completely succumb to wilt this season.  We’ve had tremendous success with this variety previously, so it will remain on our list of varities to plant again.

Black Cherry

Black Cherry – Despite damage to the vines from both wilt and voles, this variety did still manage to produce a fair crop of 1″ sweet fruits.  More in fact than either of the other two cherry tomato varieties planted this year (Salisaw Cafe, and Blondkopfchen).  In a normal year, in the absence of wilt, with sufficient sunshine, we’d expect this variety to do very well here.  Like many black tomatoes, these fruits were sweet, with a complex, slightly smoky, tomato flavor.  Certainly worth trying again.

Black Pear

Black Pear – Excellent performance the last two years in our gardens, and one of our highest yielding, and most flavorful tomato varieties.  This year yields were down significantly, but overall production was still the highest of any of the mid-sized tomato varieties in the garden this season.  The plants looked horrendous by late September, and did eventually succumb to Fusarium wilt.  Overall though this variety still performed beyond our expectations, at least in the early season, and the fruits ripened before most others, including our cherry tomatoes!

Blondkopfchen

Blondkopfchen – we planted this variety as an heirloom replacement for Sun Gold this year.  Unfortunately, Blondkopfchen seemed the most set back of all the cherry tomatoes by our cool overnight temperatures.  It produced a staggering number of flowers early in the season, but simply failed to set fruit until the end of August.  By this time, the plant was winding down for the season, and overall yields were abysmal.  Fruits weren’t particularly sweet, and the skins unpleasantly tough (likely secondary to overall vine damage).

Crnkovic Yugoslavian – Flavor was good, but production very low.  The plants struggled to set any fruit, producing only a few per plant, and most didn’t ripen before summer’s end.

Federle – the fruits of this paste tomato were significantly larger than San Marzano this year, but the total yield less than half.  A very meaty tomato, with good flavor, and few seeds, it has virtue as an excellent salsa tomato.  We’d be interested to see how this variety produces under normal conditions.

German Orange

German Orange Strawberry (sport from last year) – both German oxheart tomatoes seemed to be the most resistant to wilt in our garden this year.  Some die-off of the stems occurred, but overall these plants remained the most green, and produced the largest fruits of any of the tomatoes planted this year.  Last year we selected the optimum fruits to save seed from our orange sport of German Red Strawberry, but weren’t sure if the seeds would produce orange, or red fruits.  To our delight they were orange, HUGE, and perfectly shaped!  Softball sized tomatoes, abundant fruit set, but with the drawback that these large fruits didn’t all ripen before our unseasonably early rain appeared in early October.

German Red Strawberry

German Red Strawberry – This is the variety, from the same seed stock, as the orange sport shown above.  This season its yields weren’t as high, but overall the plants were relatively resistant to wilt, and did produce moderately sweet, flavorful fruit.  However, the tomatoes were mostly flattened in shape this year, and some were cat-faced, most likely due to cool overnight temperatures this summer.  These German Red Strawberry tomatoes also weren’t particularly ‘strawberry’ shaped this season, unlike their orange counterparts.

Large Red

Large Red – This Civil War era tomato produced some beautiful, good quality, and flavorful fruits early in the season, but by mid-summer the vines had withered, and subsequent fruit set yielded few, and very small, tomatoes.  By September, the plants were dead. Showed excellent promise though, and we would definitely try this variety again.

Pantano Romanesco – This variety looked promising by late July, and was one of the earliest large heirloom varieties to set much fruit.  However, the vines withered, and failed before the fruit ripened, causing them to split, mold, and drop to the ground before they were ripe, as the stems could no longer transport nutrients.

Pineapple – Total crop failure.  This was the most heavily vole damaged of the entire tomato crop this spring, and just never recovered.

Russian 117 – A red, modest fruiting oxheart tomato, but fruit size was much smaller than last year.  Of the oxhearts, the German varieties seem more reliable, and wilt resistant.

Russian Persimmon

Russian Persimmon – our all time favorite tomato, and the variety we’ve been growing the longest.  We’ve been saving seed from this line for a number of years now.  Sweet, low-acid yellow-orange fruits, with relatively few seeds, it’s our favorite tomato for summer grilled pizza.  Previously very dependable, with fabulous sweet tasting fruit, it struggled with the pestilence sweeping through the tomato garden this season.  We know this variety does well here, and we still have some saved seed from previous seasons, so hopefully we can try again next year.

Salisaw Cafe

Salisaw Cafe – like Blondkopfchen, this cherry tomato struggled to set fruit during our cool summer months, however, it did set a few, and as the temperatures warmed in late September the plant seemed to rebound somewhat.  Overall though, ripening was very late, and yields were drastically lower than last season.   Even though the plants still have some green fruits, there’s not enough of the season left for them to ripen.  Previously proven to do well here though, we will plant it again.

San Marzano

San Marzano (Lungo 2) – fruits undersized for San Marzano, but still reasonably productive, and flavorful.  Given a choice between this variety and Federle, this year, we’d choose San Marzano for overall yield.

Stupice – excellent early production, and the earliest of our mid-sized tomatoes to ripen. A number of mid-sized red fruits were harvested before fusarium got a grip in the garden, but it was one of the first varieties to succumb after Beam’s Yellow Pear.

Tobolsk – Total crop failure.

Vorlon

Vorlon – Near total failure, although three fruits hardly qualify as a raging success.  Plants initially were huge, with massive leaves, but fruit set was very poor, and fruits molded on the vine before they were ripe.  Overall a promising start, but yields a tremendous disappointment.  That said, we love black tomatoes, and this was an exceptional year.  We’d try again just to give this variety the benefit of the doubt.

Due to the severity of wilt in the garden this year it’s not truly possible to provide a fair evaluation of the varieties planted this year.  Some varieties did set acceptable quantities of fruit, but the ripening period was so late this year that many of those fruits never ripened.

What can be said is that despite this season’s disaster in the garden, the German Oxhearts, and Argentina plants were much more resilient, and surprised us both in fruit size, and quantity of fruit set.  In a normal year we would have had at least a couple of more weeks of warm weather at the end of the season than this year, and more of these fruits would have had a chance to ripen.

Some of the late season heirlooms, like Argentina, still have green, unripened fruits.

The question now is, where to go from here?  Fusarium wilt, once established in soil, can wreak havoc for years to come.  Although we grow our tomatoes in raised beds, and can potentially replace the soils in these beds over winter, that alone would not ensure that Fusarium wilt doesn’t rear its ugly head again next season.

Despite significant challenges, we did get to enjoy a few tomatoes this season. Clockwise from top left, Argentina, Large Red, Black Pear and Russian Persimmon (center)

We will replace and amend our soils over the winter and spring, but to improve our potential for success next summer, we’re looking into grafting our own tomato plants in the greenhouse next spring to Fusarium and Verticulum wilt-resistant root stocks.  That process though is an entire post in and of itself, so we’ll cover the details of selecting tomato root stocks, and the grafting process, in a future post.

Grafting will incur additional expense, as wilt-resistant root stock seeds are expensive, and it will require more time to do the actual grafting.  However, we’re very fond of our heirloom tomatoes here at Curbstone Valley, and can’t stand the thought of another tomato season like this one, so it will be worth the extra effort if it helps to ensure a more productive growing season.  Grafting, and good soils management, hopefully will improve our future yields of heirloom tomatoes in this garden.

Although our peppers and tomatoes struggled this season, it wasn't all bad. Our Asian greens, kale, and beans did great!

On the upside, despite the cold weather wreaking havoc on the tomato garden, it was an excellent year for beans, spinach, kale, and Asian greens.

The great thing about gardens though is there’s always an opportunity to try again next year, but next year we’re hoping for improved weather, fewer voles, less wilt, and many more tomatoes!