A boss earlier in my career assured me we all make them — it’s how we address them that counts.
But this philosophy has proved especially helpful at home while building our landscape garden. Whenever something goes awry — tomatoes with blossom end rot, thin-stalked broccoli, poor seed germination, limited pea production, fruit theft by birds or squirrels, blights and mildews — my husband, Kevin, and I assess the situation and determine a better course of action for next season.
Before I sigh and reach for my trusty notebook to jot down our “fix,” we chorus “Now we know.” This line from a Stephen Sondheim musical has served as the mantra for our lives.
The thing is, we are attempting to grow such a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and berries that no single set of rules applies.
Each tree, bush, vine or annual responds differently to soil pH, calcium availability, watering intervals, sun intensity, air flow, nitrogen. What makes tomatoes happy and productive doesn’t necessarily work for beans or broccoli.
So, as pleased as we are with much of our harvest this year — grapes and peaches for the first time! — we’re already developing a laundry list of ways to improve next year.
It’s a system that pays off. Case in point: Tomatoes.
Coming into this project, I had plenty of childhood knowledge about conventionally raised pommes de terre — after all, we grew hundreds each year on our farm. We tied them with twine to wire suspended from upended railroad ties, pruned them, fertilized them and sprayed them — ultimately producing picture-perfect red beauties for salads and sandwiches.
But little of that was applicable to organically raising two dozen plants better suited for sauce.
After trial and error, we’ve learned to:
• Plant them farther apart to encourage air flow and limit disease spread;
• Use sturdy stakes to provide season-long support;
• Remove all lower leaves to minimize fungal growth;
• Remove “suckers” to allow fruit set on only two branches;
• Spray natural fungicides to stave off blights and septoria leaf spot;
• Amend soil with lime and use heavy calcium supplements — this is particularly critical for our preferred San Marzano variety since it was developed in mineral-rich volcanic soils near Naples, Italy;
• Water regularly to ease calcium uptake and prevent blossom end rot.
Combined, these individual tweaks set the stage this year for our best tomatoes yet — uniform, solid, low-acid specimens that make swoon-worthy sauce.
In this instance, all those mistakes of the past and subsequent lessons learned produced sweet success!