Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lil Tomato Houses

Girl in action. Lil tomato house inaction.
The first weekend in April, Olympia's Farmers Market opens (and I rejoice). That time of year around Puget Sound, even the best farmers don't have much produce, so they fill the gap with plants started in greenhouses (and all of us gardeners rejoice). 

But April, even May, can be a cruel time for plants to have their roots thrust into cold wet soil, tops shivering in the mist one day and wind the next. This is especially true for tomatoes, which might enjoy the occasional sunny days, but not the cool wet ones, and especially not the frigid nights (which tend to be even colder following a clear sunny day). They may not actually shrink, like mammalian maleparts may in such conditions, but they sure as heck don't wanna grow, and cannot summon the strength to fight blights and fend off fungal foes. 

So you either wait til it's warm, which may not happen til days are already getting shorter, or you give them shelter. Following Solomon's advice (conveniently reproduced for us moderns in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades before he took off for Tasmania, that devil), I grew them in a hoop house (instructions here) last year, which worked out very well. Even though the Spring was long and cool, a little bit of plastic allowed me to harvest photons throughout, giving the plants a big head start by the time Summer finally arrived.

This year, I decided to grow more, and to experiment with individual tomato houses, which are basically cages with a form-fitting plastic cover. This will let each plant get about twice as big in the warm confines of its home before it starts bumping into the plastic cover, demanding release.

This shot gives you the basic idea. First, make a wire frame (what does not show up well is that if you use fence like this, you should cut out a few 2 x 2 holes in the grid so you can reach in later and harvest). Then, cut plastic wide enough to wrap completely around and tall enough to close over the top. Slide this prophylactic over the cage, and wait for juicy tomatoes to burst forth. That's about it.

But not completely it. Already, I've learned of some flows in my brilliant plan. Try not to replicate my idiocy and inexperience:
  • Plant the tomato first, because it's a pain to reach inside to plant it. Literally, if your cutting left sharp wire nubs like I did.
  • Stake down the cage, or it'll blow over. I used the wire I cut out to tie the cage to a rebar pounded into the ground, and it has held so far.
  • Make the plastic slightly loose fitting. That way it is easier to slide up so you can water, or let the tomatoes breathe on the hot day that will inevitably follow your planting. 
  • Don't depend on tape to hold the plastic together. In the photo above, I did not remove the plastic to make the cage visible; it fell off. [I am leaving a couple like that as controls to test the efficacy of the remaining lil tomato houses. Ineptitude and laziness can be recast as science.]
  • Don't leave town. You can cook your plants in a hurry if you don't slide the plastic up several inches on sunny days, and make sure they are watered. 
  • Try and make the roof tighter than I did. All I did was clip the top, which does not make anything even close to a sealed envelope. I am pretty sure the heat flows out by nightfall,  but again am too lazy and inept to fix it. [Sometimes they cannot be called science, although I am able to rationalize that I'm probably not baking the plants during days when I am not there to coddle them.]
No doubt, as time passes, I'll learn more. Maybe I'll follow up at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see if the covered plants outperform those left to the vagaries of the Puget Spring (as I write, they are enduring a cold rainy night). If nothing else, they are in nice cages, so I won't have to do anything more than guide a few branches through the holes to give them support. These plants won't be as crowded as their hoophouse sisters, which according to Solomon should pay off. We'll see. 

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