Mysterious plants, tomatos. We go through all this trouble to make this delicious tropical fruit grow, and then it surprises us by adapting and thriving by itself!

This year, I started seed from at least 10 different varieties back in spring. Pricking out, then planting out under cloches… some I planted a little later after hardening off properly, you know, the whole process. Quite time consuming, especially when you also pinch off all the laterals, tie them to stakes every 10cm, mulch, and liquid feed weekly!

Then, way later then when I planted out the seedlings, a whole lot sprouted among our strawberry plants where we’d put worm compost in early spring. I weeded out most, but left some to grow where they were, thinking I’d move them to another bed when I got time for that (needless to say, I never got around to it!). Today, all the plants are about the same size, all have fruit that starts to blush. But the transplanted ones have psyllids. The freely germinated ones in the strawberry bed don’t. So much for my efforts!

This led me to the question: what really is a tomato? Where do they grow naturally? What are their requirements? Trawling the internet…

In its natural state, it’s a perennial vine. We grow it as an annual, and stake it upright. But its natural inclination is to ramble the grounds and over other plants, growing new roots from the stem whenever it comes into contact with water. Wild tomatos with small fruit are common in Mesoamerica, and the name comes from Nahuatl (previousl known as Aztec) language tomatl.

So, I’m imagining the natural conditions in the tropics: forest floors, clearings, high humus levels, partial shade, humid conditions under the trees, stable temperatures day/night, summer/winter. And plants which don’t have to put heaps of energy into growing big juicy fruits, but rather small and many. Appearently, they cross very easily and mutate even more, so they’d be readily adaptable to new conditions.

How do we recreate that here, rather than just mitigating the negative effects of growing them in (for them) “unnatural conditions”? Conventional tomato production here in temperate climates focus on transplanting into hot houses and hard pruning. While I’m not saying that is a bad idea – clearly, it works! – I’m really curious to see if there’s another way of doing this.

I’d like to try giving them as close-to-natural conditions: Low tunnels with plastic to heat up the soil in spring. Add some manure in the soil really early in spring to get the bacteria going and help warm the soil. A soak hose underneath for even moisture and none on the leaves. Choose a disease resistant cherry tomato variety. Then mix the seeds into worm compost (high in organic matter) and spread this on the soil, to avoid the transplanting. When they’re maybe 20-30cm tall, add heaps of mulch. When the weather is clearly summery, change the plastic to a microklima cloth to continue to protect them. But still, letting them ramble all over the ground and not having to tie them up – just to see how it works out.

Next year, I’ll do some of the tomato beds at workerBe Oasis this way!

What are your experiences with tomatos? Alternative ways of growing them? What worked, what didn’t? Share your thoughts!

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