At Turner Family Farms, we take great pride in our tomato crops and our methods of growing them. The tomato plant can be quite a challenge to grow at times, but with the right knowledge of varieties, types, trellising and fertigation methods, plus vigilance against disease and insect pests, a successful tomato crop can be very rewarding.
Varieties and Methods
We grow slicers, cherries, and San Marzano (Roma) tomatoes – both heirloom and conventional. Some of our favorite varieties include Trust, Big Beef, Black Cherry, Roma, Sunrise Sauce, Indigo Rose, Sungold, Supersweet, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, Celebrity, Rebelski, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, and a handful more. All of these varieties can be separated into one of two categories; determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties like Sunrise Sauce and Celebrity are bush-style and have a short, but prolific, harvest window. We grow our determinate tomatoes in the field using stakes and twine in what’s called the “Florida weave.” The one advantage to determinate varieties is that some of them are more heat tolerant, so they fill a mid-to-late summer gap when all other varieties are unable to set fruit.
Indeterminate varieties, on the other hand, are vines that can produce fruit over a long period of time. As vines, they must be trellised differently from the bush types. We learned our method from the owners of Sunny Slope Greenhouses, Jim Letendre and Dave Denson. Sunny Slope Greenhouses, founded in 1979 and located just outside of Siler City, was well-known for decades in the Raleigh-Durham and Triangle area of North Carolina. Jim and Dave studied European trellising, fertiligation, and light control methods and put them all to good use growing a single slicer variety called “Trust.” There is an exceptional article about the Sunny Slope farm and method written by the well-known agricultural extension agent, Debbie Roos. There is no way to make a better explanation than Debbie does, but the basic premise of our method is as follows. We grow our indeterminate tomatoes inside of a high tunnel (an unheated greenhouse) and we plant them in the ground. The structure of the greenhouse supports the trellising system. Like Jim and Dave before us, we go to great lengths to amend the soil with compost and worm castings before we plant our seedlings. We use spools of twine attached to an overhead wire to hold our tomato vines vertically. As they grow, we harvest fruit, remove the bottom leaves, then lower and lean each vine in the row. Since there are two rows of plants per bed (alternately spaced,) what we end up with over time is a circle of vines. At the end of the season, it is possible to be harvesting the tomatoes from the top of the vine while the crown (where the root meets the stem) can be as far as 20 feet away.
Heirlooms vs Conventional
Heirloom tomatoes are all the rage these days, and for good reason. The old- style German Johnson or Cherokee Purple tomatoes are meaty and great tasting, not to mention some of them are true giants. From a grower’s standpoint, though, they are less hardy, much more susceptible to disease, and honestly, when I do blind taste tests at the farmer’s markets, the conventional tomatoes are rated slightly higher in taste. Personally, I like the heirlooms for their interesting textures, colors, and odd appearance, but the conventional tomatoes are much hardier, and easier to grow. Incidentally, none of our tomatoes are GMOs, and we buy only organic seeds – usually through Johnny’s Seeds.
Finally….What the Heck is a “Hothouse” tomato?
Frankly, I get tired of being asked if our tomatoes are “hothouse” tomatoes, mostly because the people asking don’t really know what a hothouse tomato is. To be fair, the term is misleading. When people use the term as a pejorative, what they are really talking about are tomatoes grown in enclosed greenhouses during cold seasons – often hydroponically – where the tomatoes are picked hard-as-a-rock green, then shipped to re-sellers at your local grocery store. Oftentimes they are shipped refrigerated, which is something you never, ever, want to do with a tomato. Never refrigerate a tomato, it makes them mealy. Growing a tomato inside of a high tunnel in rich soil and using the structure as a trellis is a superior way to grow them. They are open to the air outside, yet protected from rain (wet foliage promotes disease,) and pests. Even extreme sun can be a problem for tomatoes so we use shade paint on the greenhouse plastic, while others use another option, shade cloth. Growing in an open greenhouse gives the small farmer much more control of the elements, the nutrients, and the critters. All of the best produce farmers in our area grow their tomatoes this way. This includes Stefan Hartmann of Black River Organic Farm who is the original organic farmer in the region and the standard by which we Wimlington-area produce farmers judge ourselves. When I asked him how he answers this question, he said, “hothouse tomatoes are basically hydroponic tomatoes grown on industrial farms, whereas, you know how we do it….ours are basically field tomatoes grown under cover…in the ground. There’s no comparison.” He admitted, though, that there are people who turn up their nose the second you say the word “greenhouse” or “high tunnel.” In our conversation, Stefan mentioned Alex Hitt who was a contemporary of Stefan’s in the earliest days of the organic movement. Almost two decades ago at the Peregrine Farm, Alex started using Haygrove (https://www.haygrove.com/) open ended tunnels to protect his tomato crops from rain and disease. This method is tried and true, produces superior fruit, and has absolutely no relation to “hothouse” tomatoes. At Peregrine, they actually move the lighter Haygrove tunnels on rails so they cover new ground every couple of years. At Turner Family Farms, we use our small tractor with a loader bucket to remove and replace the old soil with new amended soil. It takes about two days, but it’s worth it. Once the tomatoes are finished, the soil is renovated with compost and worm castings, and we plant a cucumber crop using a very similar trellising method, but, that’s a story for another article.