An oral tradition

I think of gardening as an oral tradition. Some things I love reading about, cooking, eating, and parenting, to name a few. However, I don’t think of gardening as something I read about. I tried before, I even read a book that was specific to gardening in Texas and I planted things at the wrong times, planted the wrong things, and couldn’t find other plants in the book. I ended up rather frustrated.

I ditched the book. It’s sitting forlornly on a bookshelf, gathering dust. Instead, I decided to talk to people I considered experts on gardening, my parents and grandparents, people at local nurseries (usually the owners), and the farmer from our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Of all of those, the farmer has proven to be the most helpful.

When I picked up my box of vegetables from the farm, I usually run into the farmer. He usually shows me his new projects; the new greenhouse, the irrigation tanks, and this week, the composting project he was starting. In turn, I get to ask any garden questions I had for the week. This week was about tomatoes.

I asked about suckering tomato plants. I’ve heard people say I should sucker my plants. I don’t and was hoping I wasn’t severely limiting my tomato output. I didn’t expect the farmer suckered all his plants (he estimated he has 6,000 tomato plants in this year, including 20 different varieties of heirlooms!), but I thought maybe he would have advice for someone gardening on a much smaller scale.

His response was that there are two different types of tomato plants - ones that need suckering and ones that don’t. The ones that suckering is beneficial to is the indeterminate plants, those that will produce indefinitely and grow monstrously huge. I had seen the word indeterminate before in seed catalogs, but had ignored it because I didn't know what it meant.

Thinking of my tomatoes, I knew exactly what those were: Mortgage Lifter (pictured on left) is an indeterminate, however my cherry tomatoes appear not to be. My grape tomatoes are an indeterminate. Upon a little research on the internet (my exception to the reading is Seed Catalogs and pictures of plants or bugs), I learned that Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and Old German's are also indeterminate. Here I had thought that the nitrogen content in my little garden had varied greatly from one area to another. It seems it is more the plant than the dirt.

Back to suckering. The farmer then went on to say that one year (when he had a lot fewer tomato plants), he tried suckering his plants. He said it was a lot of work, and he didn’t notice a difference.

I am sticking to that opinion. Maybe someday, when my kids are older, I will have time to sucker my tomatoes. For now, I am letting them grow wild and free without worrying too much that my tomatoes will be less than they could be. They will still be mighty tasty!

And about reading: Maybe someday I will find that great gardening book by someone who writes not just in a scientific, educational way, but who also has a sense of humor and makes gardening mistakes (like not suckering indeterminate tomatoes). Maybe then I'll change my mind about gardening books. Barbara Kingsolver has come the closest so far, with her Animal, Vegatable, Miracle. It isn't really a book about how to garden, just a book about someone who does garden.

Do you sucker your tomatoes? And do you find better advice in books, or from the "experts" around you?


Joshua McNichols said...

I prune my tomatoes pretty hard. I guess that's a form of extreme suckering. But I've found that if I don't, they grow too densely and I can't get the tomatoes out of their web of limbs. This may be a factor of me living on an urban lot and having to constrain their footprint. We also get a lot of rain in the fall. Also, I'm not sure if it helps, but I seemed to notice less blossom end-rot (romas often get it around here) when I keep the plants more open. I also think it doesn't make sense to have leaves shading each other, but I guess that's just an unscientific hunch.