Friday, March 16, 2007

Little Lessons, Part 1

Little lessons that have to be learned over and over:
  • A row of tomato transplants is not planted until the cages are in place and they have been secured so that the wind won't topple them when they are filled with heavy vines.
  • A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
  • "Forever" is often only a few minutes or hours.
  • Just one more [page, potatochip, tomato cage].....
Yes, it's much too early to plant tomatoes outdoors in Kansas. For my tomato cycle, it's even early for planting the transplants (a task I gratefully relinquish to my mother in Manhattan, KS, who has a greenhouse.) This reflection came from the more seasonally-appropriate task of cleaning last year's tomato cages.

I grow large-vined indeterminate tomato varieties: Jet Star, San Marzano, Yellow Pear, Beefsteak, various heirloom varieties. My standard cages are about 2' in diameter, 5' tall, made of concrete reinforcing wire. I am always amused by the little 3' tall, 12' diameter ones they sell at the hardware store...on Pinwheel Farm, I call those "pepper cages", and they're often a bit small for the peppers. Things really grow here, even though I don't irrigate or till the land or any of the other things a gardener is "supposed" to do.

When I put the cages on at planting time, the cages seem ludicrously over-sized, the 10' spacing between rows seems ridiculously wide. Pulling the vines off in the early spring is a good reminder that this year's vines will, eventually, outgrow the cages. The most vigorous varieties have been known to grow up the 5' cage, drape 5' down to the ground, trail 3' across to the next row of cages, and grow up that 5' cage! (After that season of tunneling between the 5'-spaced rows, I went to 10' spacing and plant the bed in between with some early-maturing crop like potaotes or lettuce.)

Cleaning the cages means pulling off all the dead vines, both the tomatoe vines and the morning glory vines. It's an engaging but slow and reflective task. But with somewhere on the order of 100 cages, each densly cloaked in dead vines, it's easy to think it will take "forever"...or at least hours and hours. When WILL I find the time? I need to get it done so that I can plant potatoes under the mulch left from last year's tomatoes, saving a lot of time. One of the benefits of brome hay is that a well-applied mulch can last a couple years.

Cleaning cages doesn't require much visibility, so after an evening meeting tonight, as I strolled out for a late check on the sheep, I thought, "I'll just clean one cage. That will get me started." Then I did another. Then I was getting in the groove with it, so I finished that row (10 cages). Then I realized if I did the next row, I'd have all the cages from that area of the garden done. Then I thought I'd do that partial row in the next area...well, maybe the next row, too...and then yet another. And suddenly, more than half of the cages have been cleaned, in an hour or so by flashlight (I use a headlamp so that both hands are free).

Cleaning the cages is a good way to prepare myself for planting tomatoes. Two of the rows last year were fully"planted"--in other words, the cages were in place and tied down. The other rows, alas, I never completed that essential final step. The cages were tumbled about, despite a volunteer's efforts to prop them in position with sticks. So I had to untangle the cages from the sticks, as well as pulling off the vines. How simple to prevent all the extra work that went into the propping, and now the cleanup. I simply run a piece of baling twine (new from the roll I purchased several years ago) from the top of the T-post at one end of the bed, along the outside of the cages on one side, tighten it around the T-post at the other end, and run it along the other side of the cages, and tie it securely to the original post. Simple, and amazingly effective. The tied rows are still perfectly in place. THIS is the year I will get all cages tied...(I hope).

At least I had gotten cages on all of them. In some years, I've failed even that. Tomato plants will effectively reproduce themselves while sprawled on the ground, but the harvest goes mainly to the slugs, bugs, and mice. Caging (or some form of support) is essential...the earlier, the better.

It's possible to put a cage on a plant that's a month or more old, esp. if you have a friend help. YOU (because you wouldn't ask it of a friend, lest they no longer claim friendship) embrace the tomato plant, surrendering your entire suit of clothes and epidermis to the pungent sticky staining of tomato sap, applied by each stem and leaf. Then your friend carefully lowers the cage over the plant, trying not to impale you with the rusty spikes of wire (why you have a FRIEND do this). When your arms get in the way of the cage, you begin reaching through the openings in the cage and lifting the plant gently into the cage, until the spikes can be firmly set in the, not your foot. Did I mention that tetanus shots are an essential prerequisite to farming and gardening?

As I KNOW, despite (because of?) my past frequent failure of DOING, putting the cage on the same day the transplants go in the ground is vital, even though the tiny plants look silly in such giant cages. This season, I resolve to cage every plant as it is planted, and to tie down each row before I plant the next....

In just 1 1/2 hour, I accomplished a large part of the seemingly insurmountable task. But, now I'm sure it will take me FOREVER to move all those cages to this year's tomato area.....

1 comment:

Catlady said...

Wuhoo!!! You've entered the world of BLOG!!! :)

Tomatoes.... You should have seen the cherry tomatoes we had last year - When we pulled them up in the fall, some of the vines were taller than the garage!!!

I'll be reading often :) BC Hugs.