There’s never a time of year when we don’t get at least the occasional inquiry about tomatoes. Deep into December, early early in March, it matters not – we’re guaranteed to hear “Do you have any tomatoes?” at some time or other. Or at the very least, the more season-savvy customers who know better than to expect them in the winter and spring will somewhat sheepishly ask, “When do you think you’ll start having tomatoes?”

We know most everybody wants them, and they want them as soon as is practical. There is indeed a way to grow tomatoes in the winter and spring – in a “hothouse” situation with heaters and auxiliary lighting, and sometimes even with hydroponic gadgetry – yet that’s a mighty extensive and expensive route to take. Plus, truth be told, hothouse tomatoes simply aren’t as good. I don’t mean to step on any toes by saying this, as I know there are people out there who make their livelihoods that way…but you just can’t beat a fresh tomato grown in soil and ripened by sunshine.

Now, that’s not to say we don’t fudge the season a little. We do. Because we know darn well we’ll suffer later spring freezes than almost every other farm in the area, and because customers do continually ask us when our tomatoes will be here, we start early rows of maters under a hoop house. It has no auxiliary lighting or heat, but the plastic cover’s greenhouse effect heats the inside of the structure to a temperature the tomatoes prefer, and it gives the plants that much more protection on those nights when the thermometer hits the freezing mark. (Below freezing, Farmer John drapes row covers over the plants inside the hoop house; really below freezing, it’s double row covers with slowly dripping irrigation underneath.)

All of the tomatoes, early and late, start with Mary and the soil blocker.

Once the flats are seeded with different varieties of tomatoes (Early Girls always come first; then we move on to Bella Rosa, Celebrity, Tomande, Cherokee Purple, Lemon Boy, Sun Sugar and others), they’re nurtured through their initial growth in the greenhouses…

…until they’re large enough to “pot on” into 3-1/2 inch pots.

After that, they’re moved to the more unprotected greenhouse where we allow wind to blow through the screens to “harden off” these rather lanky (since we almost always pot them on a little later than ideal) plants. That way, when we do finally set them out into the rows, they can better handle what Mother Nature throws at them. (We just ask that you throw no hail, Mother, please!)

Out here, they get pollinated as nature intended. Unlike squash, for example, which grows separate male and female flowers, each tomato flower has both a male and a female component. In order to get the pollen from the male part to the female part, vibration must occur. (It all sounds so X-rated, doesn’t it?) A bees wings will do it, as will a breath of wind. Anything to give the flower a wiggle.

The thing is, though, neither of these things can happen in a covered hoop house with screens on both ends. There are no bees in there, nor can the wind make it all the way through. Consequently, one of us does our best breeze imitation when we take our daily walk through the Early Girls hoop house to wiggle each tomato plant’s cage.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call us hustlers, really, but in a hoop house situation there’s no doubt the male part of the flower would have a good deal of trouble hooking up with the female part without our intervention. Let’s call us facilitators instead. Mother Nature’s surrogates.

We’ll play any role required, within reason, to get our first tomatoes to the farm stands as early as possible. Still, anything can happen, so we’re not about to count our eggs before they’re pollinated. All we can do is give a nudge here, a wink there, and wait to see what comes of it. Right now, our efforts appear to be working.

We’ll keep our fingers crossed. And we’ll keep wiggling.

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Here’s what we’ll be bringing to the farm stand on Wednesday:

The first of the sweet white turnips; lots of spinach; more head lettuces – butterhead hearts, romaine, green leaf and red leaf; lettuce mix; lettuce/chicory salad mix; bags of arugula; green onions; green garlic; young leeks; purple kohlrabi (and maybe white kohlrabi too, if it’s ready); bunches of chard; Brussels greens; Dinosaur kale; bunches of mixed Asian greens; cilantro; escarole; and maybe some of this and that. (Carrots will be back next week – we’re letting the new crop grow a little bit…plus, we need time to get some other planting done this week so we’ll have something to bring to the stands in the future!)

Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm