I’m doing several different experiments with the tomato crop this year. I just can’t help myself. Each year I try something new and each year I learn something. Meanwhile we always get a ton of tomatoes, so it doesn’t hurt my bottom line. And I want to get ever more efficient at growing this crop.
I’ve got about 60 tomatoes and 20 hot peppers out in the ‘greenhouse’ at the moment, and another tray of about 20 more tomatoes and 20 more peppers under lights in my bedroom. The ones in the greenhouse are doing fine. We have nice sunny days, and I open the door of the greenhouse in the middle part of the day (if I’m home) and allow the plants to get beautiful solar radiation, then close it up about 3 pm and let the greenhouse heat up inside before chilly night comes (between 45-49 degrees outside generally, but much, much warmer in the greenhouse). So that is one experiment - I wanted to see if I could minimize the time and space that seedlings take up in the house (our house is so tiny, even one table full of seedlings is in the way), and I think this is working. Since I don’t intend on putting tomatoes in the ground until the nights are solidly above 50 degrees, we’ve got a while. Also the soil is still fairly cool. I’m hoping not to pot them up further, just plop them into the ground when conditions are right.
The tomatoes will go on the south side of the garden this year, in six raised beds. Two of the beds are 4x4 and four are 4x8. This limits me to 40 tomatoes. Eight cherry tomato plants (4 in each) will go in the 4x4s. 16 each of paste and slicers will go in the remaining 4x8s (8 in each). And this planting is where some other experiments are going to come in.
I was not pleased with the health and production of my cherry tomatoes last year. I pruned them to a single stem, the same way I did all the others, and it severely limited our crop. We love to have the cherries for fresh eating and quick salads, and we really missed having a lot of them. They are also generally the first to ripen in June, which bridges the gap for us until July when the bigger guys are ready to eat. I’ve done some research, and there is some evidence that pruning cherry tomatoes really limits production. So I’m not going to prune them this year. Tom will make a sort of wooden cage to hold them all upright and contained, and we’ll let them go wild.
I’ll still prune the bigger tomatoes to a single stem. However that leaves the soil quite bare, and I don’t have homemade straw this year (I didn’t grow wheat or oats this winter), so at first I was just thinking about how I could creatively mulch the ground around them. And then I was like, wait, why am I not just planting other plants to fill in that space? I mean, I intercrop everything else (grow various types of crops together, or a crop with a cover crop, etc). Why not tomatoes? So I did a little research on that topic, too. There’s not a lot of real science about growing other crops with tomatoes. I think farmers don’t do it much because tomatoes need a lot of air and light to avoid disease; that’s why we prune them in the first place, to remove vegetation to provide more air and light. And that’s super important in a humid location. But - not so much here in summer-dry California where all irrigation is applied at the drip line. I remove those extra branches for a different reason - because I want fruit, not leaves! And bigger fruit at that! So why not replace those bottom branches with a different plant, one that shades the soil, crowds out weeds, retains moisture, and feeds soil life? As long as the plants have a different kind of root system, they shouldn’t compete too much. And I’m not talking about, like, companion plants or something. Companion planting is a nice idea but not exactly science. I’m talking intercropping. Getting two crops out of the same space. Or, even cover cropping, which simply improves the soil.
So I’m going to try it. Basil is a natural to put with tomatoes - it has a shallow root system, it likes the same amount of water and heat and light; it stays smaller than tomatoes; it has a beautiful flower that attracts beneficial insects; and it’s something we eat a lot of. I could do basil alone and that would work great. But diversity is good, so how about adding some cilantro to that? It’ll bolt and re-seed; it adds a new kind of flower for those beneficials; it can be eaten (and we do eat a lot of it); and it looks beautiful. So I could mix those two herbs. I could even mix in a third thing, like cosmos? Purely ornamental, but beautiful and beneficial too. Or I could intercrop buckwheat? That improves the soil and provides a flower for good insects. Or I could mix them all up?
I haven’t figured out the particulars just yet, but I’m definitely going to try this method. Have any of you intercropped or cover cropped your tomatoes? If so, please let me know how it went for you!