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We Need to Talk About Tomatoes

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

There is no such thing as a good year in the garden. Nor a bad one. Some years are wetter, dryer, hotter or colder than others. The important thing is that we grow as many different fruits and nuts and vegetables as possible.

Last year, for example, was a disaster for fruits. A very mild winter, and a late frost. I wrote about it the far better fruit situation this year in The Fruit Forecast, along with a prediction that the stores would be full of jam this year. Which indeed they are. And sitting as I am in my study, I can look out into the orchard, and see apples and damsons swelling in the early-autumn rains.

Potatoes have been exceptional. Lots of heat, lots of rain, and with three rows of the heaviest-cropping mains still in the ground, I have already eaten 30 kilos, and have at least 150 in the stores. The pumpkins were a disaster, but that was my fault and it won't happen again next year; the superabundancy of the bean-vines is truly something astonishing. I am not going to starve this winter!

But, the tomatoes.

I have spoken to professional growers, sef-sufficiency types, alotmonteers, hobbyists and two-pot backyard tomtao fans, and no-one has escaped a miserable year for tomatoes.

Blight in the common-tongue refers to an unsightly element out of place, to urban decay, neglect and dereliction. In the horticultural lexicon, it is a plant's response to infection.

The catastrophic loss of the potato harvest which lead to the Irish Potato Famine was caused by blight. Blight destroyed just about every mature chestnut tree in North America. And blight, the fungal infection of the pathogen altrnaria is the scourge of the homesteader throughout Europe. (it might be inaccurate, but we talk about blight as the response to the infection, the fungus and the disease all as if they are the same thing)

Blight is basically unavoidable. It happens most easily when the leaves of the tomato plants get wet and stay wet, especially when the air is warm. This is why you never water the leaves but the ground. And why you mulch tomatoes heavily. They hate getting dry anyway, but the more moisture you can retrain around their feet, the less you have to water them, the less chance you give the blight spores a chance to gain a hold. Every year, a few plants will get infected leaves. These are removed and burned. Sometimes, a whole plant gets it. Same same, pull it up and burn it.

This year, every single one of my 62 outdoor plants got it, and got it bad.

This year, it feels like we had a lot of rain. In fact, my super-special water reservoir which normally dries out by the middle of July was at its highest level I have ever seen it at that time. At the same time, the meteorologists are telling us that this was the hottest summer ever.

It's not going to get better. It is going to get hotter and wetter and more changeable.

Is this the time to start seriously considering tomatoes as a luxury item? The polytunnel tomatoes, where the climate can be more tightly regulated, and where the air is somewhat protected from free-flying fungal spores, have been fine. This also seems to be the experience of most everyone else. But in the field, can the unstoppable trend of warmer air and wetter weather lead us to annual the catastrophic losses of our entire tomato crop? And if so, for how many more years will we persist in growing field tomatoes, and budgetting their appearance int he winter stores, until this is so predictable that we give up stop growing them? Like in Interstellar, when the only crop you can grow is Corn, but the guy next door is still persistsing (and failing) with rye.

I sing loudly the praises of the tomato's place in the self sufficient garden. They crop long and heavy and in a normal (whatever that means. I guess it means "historical") year, I can take 3 - 6 kilos a day and make a super variety of sauces and ketchups and passatas and bottle the summer sunshine on a daily basis. This year, I got maybe 3 kilos in total. Not only that, but the year is most definitely over for the field tomato. It should just be kicking off in bulk about now.

Germination at the start of the year was shit. Potting on (taking tomato seedlings and putting them in bigger pots with more suitable compost) was slow. Planting out (transferring them to the field) was delayed by rain. There was an additional, non-climate pressure on my tomato plants this year. I put my back out during a bit of a heat wave and couldn't water them for two days. This was not great, but should mostly affect the growth of the fruits rather than anything else. And then the blight. It came, it took them all in a matter of three or four days during which the weather went ☀️⛈️☀️⛈️☀️⛈️☀️⛈️☀️⛈️☀️

The joy of a winter store full of tomato-based creations is cheering throughout the monochrome wintery half of the year is not something that I want to live without. But hey, I always said that one of the reasons I was here was to figure out what climate change means.

I have a horrible feeling that the first conclusion is going to be that european tomatoes are a luxury, not a staple.

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