Tomatoes 101

If you garden at home, chances are you are growing your own tomatoes. I absolutely love the season’s first sliced tomato sandwich and the bounty of canning tomatoes late in the summer. As market farmers, we see a huge portion of our summer sales due to our several varieties of heirloom and cherry tomatoes. People flock to the tables displaying the rainbow of red, orange, burgundy, gold, and even pink beauties that will turn into many different delicious meals. For many people, the tomato is the taste of summer.

brandywine basket

When choosing the tomato you want to grow, there are several items to consider. How are you going to use the fruit? Slicing? Salads? Eating fresh or cooking? There are literally thousands of varieties of tomatoes from which to choose. And each one has a distinct flavor and purpose. For example, if you are planning to eat them on sandwiches, you really want a big tomato like a Brandywine or Beefsteak. If you are planning to do a lot of cooking and canning with your fruit, a paste tomato like Roma is an excellent choice. You must also choose between Heirloom and hybrid. Many home growers are attracted to heirloom varieties because of their distinct characteristics and flavors, while hybrid tomatoes offer more disease- and pest-resistance. One last consideration is whether you want a determinate or an indeterminate plant. The basic difference between the two is a determinate plant will be more compact and will give its fruit at once, while an indeterminate plant will continue to grow (sometimes very tall) and will continue to bear fruit the length of the season.

Once you have chosen your varieties, if it is still early in the year, you can decide whether you would like to start your own plants or wait until closer to planting time and purchase plants from a local nursery. If you do decide to start your own, you will need to do so at least six weeks before your planting date, which should be well after your area’s last frost date. Here at Harp & Shamrock Croft, LLC we don’t put tomatoes in the ground until May 1, the reason being that not only do we feel confident that we have passed the frost at that point, but also tomatoes really prefer good, warm soil. We start our tomatoes near the end of February, giving them ample time to grow strong before transplanting.

cherry tomatoes in colander

Because this article deals with the care and maintenance of tomatoes, I’m not going to delve into starting your own plants. We can deal with that next winter. For now, let’s talk about choosing your plants and what it takes to get them planted. First of all, if you are buying plants early in the season (March or April) you will need to care for them in their pots until planting time. This means you want to buy a plant that is not too big just yet because it will grow quite a bit before you can get it into the ground. Also, be sure you are buying one that has a big enough pot to support the root system for quite a while. I often see people buying tomato seedlings at very low prices, but I wonder if they are aware that those seedlings need to be repotted into larger pots in order to thrive before being transplanted. Once you have your plants, water them every day, be sure to give them several hours of sunlight in a sunny southern window, unless, of course, it is warm enough where you are to leave them outside.

cherrie on vine

Hardening Off If you have started your own tomatoes, you will need to help them become acclimated to the outdoors in a process called “hardening off,” which involves slowly exposing them to the elements. It’s best to start on a cloudy day if possible, setting them outside for a few hours the first day. Gradually increase that time every day for a few days. At the end of your hardening off, leave them out overnight. If you neglect to properly harden them off, you run the risk of sunscald and transplant shock.

Location Now you are ready to get your tomato babies into the ground! When you are deciding where to put them, be sure you are choosing a sunny spot. Tomatoes need at the very least, 6-8 hours of sunlight to produce fruit, and even more sun will ensure a bigger bounty. You also need to consider spacing, as many tomatoes will need a good 24 inches between them. Lastly, consider that you will need access to your tomato plants in order to care for them and water them daily. Many types can be grown in large pots on a porch, which one might argue increases your access and enjoyment.

Transplanting If you are putting your plant into the ground (as opposed to pots), we recommend using the trench method. Dig a trench about a foot long and deep (and wide) enough to cover the root ball. If your soil is dry or it is a particularly hot day, add some water to the trench before adding the plant. We also add kelp meal as a de-stresser and growth enhancer for our tomatoes; use about 2 tablespoons for each plant. Now, gently lay the plant down in the trench so it’s lying on the ground. Then cover the root ball up to the first set of leaves. The reason for this is simple: tomatoes are one of the rare plants that will grow roots wherever soil touches the plant. More roots mean more nutrients to help the plant thrive.

tomato plants in garden 2

After the plant is covered, stake the plant (we use 7-foot bamboo stakes) and gently tie it but not too tight. We are not fans of tomato cages unless you have a particularly compact plant (such as a Roma), but if planting slicing tomatoes consider using multiple states on each side of the plant in order to support the weight of the plant once it begins to fruit. Cherry tomatoes can get by with one sturdy stake, but even in some cases having a couple stakes as supports keeps the plant from stressing.

After transplanting, we recommend side dressing your plants. Once the plant is in the ground and covered, use 1/8 cup of blood meal per plant and sprinkle it around the base four inches from the stem.  Avoid having the blood meal touch the stem directly as it can burn the plant. Too much blood will encourage foliage growth but hinder fruit production. Later in the season you can go back and side dress again to give your plant a good pep. Whereas the kelp meal that we added to the hole is the stress reducer, the blood meal is fuel for growth. Given our hot and sometimes very dry summers, the plants need all the help they can get.

Water We always recommend after planting to do two deep waterings. The reason for this is you want the tomato roots to reach down for the water. Too light a watering does not go deep enough below the root ball and the root system can stay shallow. Also very important is a consistent watering cycle. An inconsistent watering cycle can bring physiological effects on the plant and can also cause deformities in your fruit. Our recommended watering schedule is 30 minutes every two to three days. You may not have to go as heavy with the water in May, but beginning in mid-June the soil dries out fast. If you aren’t sure if you need to water, do what is called the “finger test.” If you stick your finger into the soil near the plant stem you should feel it somewhat wet up to your first knuckle. It will always be wetter the deeper that you push, but if you do not feel wetness when you first push your finger down then your tomatoes need water. Be sure that you are watering your plants at the root in order to avoid scorching your leaves and also evaporation of precious water before it has a chance to soak into the soil.

romas on vine

Mulch Your tomatoes will greatly benefit from a good mulching, as well. We typically use a mixture of crushed leaves and straw (caution on leaves, though, as they will increase soil acidity, which lowers your soil pH). There are other options, too, such as black plastic and wood chips. Mulch will keep the soil moist a lot longer.

Maintenance For a top-performing plant, remove the suckers. The suckers are simply the plant growth between the main stem and a branch. Suckers can become a strain on the plant and will decrease fruit production. You may also remove the branch, if for some reason it is damaged, and let the sucker become the new growth. We have had entire plant tops get cut off or damaged and permitted a sucker to become the main growth.  You can even remove the suckers and put in soil and shoots will appear (only with suckers though).

Fertilizer Your tomatoes will need a little boost of nutrients now and again. We use fish emulsion for a little nitrogen boost every few weeks throughout the summer. It’s natural, organic approved, effective, and inexpensive. You can find it at garden centers. In addition to the kelp and blood meal that you added at transplanting, you may also want to add crushed egg shell to the soil (or some other form of calcium), as calcium greatly reduces Blossom End Rot (that black spot that sometimes occurs on the bottom of tomato fruit).

Pests It is very important to remove rotting or split fruit once it appears, in order to decrease pests that will harm other fruit. However, despite your best efforts, you will likely still encounter pests. Here at Harp & Shamrock Croft, LLC we use only OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute) approved pesticides. B.t. is a biological insecticide containing the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. We use B.t. for tomato hornworms. Mix three tablespoons of B.t. to two gallons of water, shake well, and spray each tomato plant about every 7 days. We try to be proactive and start spraying about June 1, but sometimes sooner if you see evidence of fruit with holes. Dipple Dust is a powder form of B.t. and works well too. We have only used it once though as we prefer liquid. B.t. can be found at most garden centers.

Last year we also began adding a product called Pyganic to our pesticide rotation. It is harder to purchase than B.t., as we have not found it locally and have ordered it online. It is also a broad spectrum product, meaning it can kill pollinators and should be used sparingly and only before or after the bees are out for the day.

roasted tomato sauce

Eventually your tomato plant will be finished for the season, as all good things must come to an end. At this point you can pull the plant and replace it with a younger one if there is still time in the growing season. In our area one can plant tomatoes as late as July 1 and still see a good harvest. Most tomato plants, if well cared for, will produce about 3-5 pounds of delicious, juicy fruit. I hope that these tips help you to have a happy growing season this year!

 

 

Spring Greetings!

Hello, friends, and happy Vernal Equinox! We here at the Croft have had a very busy late winter getting our crops into the ground in order to support our increasing outlets: the Hub City Farmers’ Market, our very first CSA, our in-process farm store, plus the retail outfits that will carry our plants and produce this year.

We experienced some unusual (and unfortunate) late winter weather last week but suffered minimal damage, for which we are very thankful (I am sure it is difficult to be a fruit farmer in South Carolina this year). We have our onions, carrots, leaf lettuces, head lettuces, kale, arugula, radishes, mustard, and turnips in the ground, plus many plants started in the greenhouse. Because the forecast indicated a hard freeze, we spent hours covering all of our seedlings before the weather moved in; and then we spent some time praying that our efforts would pay off! It appears that they have, and now that the temps have moved up, we should be on target for supporting the first markets and our CSA.

lettuce seedlings spring

Speaking of the CSA, though the Spring season is full, both the Summer (beginning the week of June 18) and the Fall (beginning the week of September 24) seasons are wide open. Summer payment is due March 31, so if you are considering it, please be sure to get your contract and payment submitted as soon as possible!

It’s been a pleasure to host a number of homeschool field trips this year. The kids (and parents!) have been able to learn a little about how we do things here, and we have benefitted from their help with transplanting some of our head lettuces! Field trips are available for $40 on Friday mornings to any group of students who would like to participate. Space is limited to approximately 25 people, however. Please send us an email (harpandshamrockcroft@yahoo.com) or a private message via Facebook to inquire!

We have also scheduled A Day on the Farm for Earth Day, April 22 (10-5)! Admission for this event is free. Whether you are new to us or have been a faithful customer, you are welcome to come tour our farm, see the newly constructed store, learn how we raise our chickens and dairy goats as well as raise our chemical-free vegetables using sustainable practices, and get to know us a little. It’s going to be a fun day, and what better way to celebrate Earth Day?!

Remember, too, that we have chemical-free, GMO-free plants available for your garden! See a complete list here.

plants for sale early spring

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plants for Sale!

Those of you who are new to Harp & Shamrock Croft, LLC, may not know that we are also a state-certified nursery, specializing in non-GMO and organic tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and other vegetables that are well suited to this area.

herb-plants2

Plants will start to be available in mid to late March, starting with brassicas, head lettuces, and some herbs. In April, May, and June, we will have summer squash, winter squash,     tomatoes, peppers, and more herbs/flowers available. We make our potting mix with organic-approved ingredients and never any fungicide or pesticide. squash-plants

We will have plants available at the Hub City Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings and on site nearly every day of the week. Here’s a list of what we are offering this year:

2017-plant-list

 

In the Press!

A friend who is a talented writer and follower of what’s happening here on the farm recently published an article to discuss leaving the big city and becoming a full-time farmer. We were very pleased to be the subject of her article. Read it here!

 

2017 CSA

Our Bounty Baskets sold so well last year that we have decided to start our very first CSA starting this Spring! A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is basically a subscription for a “share” of produce and whatever other products we have to offer. We are implementing 3 seasons (Spring (SOLD OUT), Summer, and Fall) at a length of 8 weeks each. Each Spring and Fall share will cost $170 ($20 per week plus a $10 crate deposit that will be put towards product at the end of the season) and the Summer share will cost $210 ($25 per week plus the $10 crate deposit). If you are interested in learning more about the terms and pickup details, etc. (delivery is also available to certain locations!), please contact us through Facebook (we need your email address) or send an email to harpandshamrockcroft@yahoo.com, and we will email you a copy of the contract to look over. Our Spring CSA deadline is January 31, and there are only a few spots left, so act quickly if you are interested!

2017-csa

In the Spring we are expecting to have eggs, lettuce, arugula, kale, radishes, beets, sugar pod peas, onions, and carrots. The Summer shares should contain eggs, summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, heirloom slicing tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, fresh cut herbs, onions, basil, eggplant, okra, and green beans. In the fall shares you can expect butternut and acorn squash, kale, arugula, peppers, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, beets, carrots, and herbs. We will include eggs most of the time but likely not all of the time. On occasion we may include some fresh baked bread or homemade goat milk soap to accompany your farm fresh vegetables. We offer quality and variety, and everything we grow here is chemical-free for your health. Thank you for considering joining us in the local food movement!

2016 In Review

Our little farm has had a very exciting year! Thanks to all of you, we ran a successful Indiegogo campaign,

appreciation-dinner held our first farm-to-table dinner on site,

brought our first kids into the world, started milking goats and making cheese, ice cream, and soap,

doubled our gross sales, started our Bounty Baskets,

participated in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Upstate Farm Tour for the second year,

root-vegetablesgrew over 3,000 lbs. of produce,

greenhouse-may2sold over 1,000 plants,

etsy-announcementopened our Etsy shop,

me-on-tractor-in-a2bought a tractor,

christmas-2016-family-picand went full-time with our endeavor.

As with every experience, we learned a lot. We learned a little more about how to grow a variety of products for our customers without stretching ourselves too thin. We learned a little about carrying products from other local farms to make your shopping on-site with us more convenient. It was a difficult year concerning the weather, but we learned a few things about working smarter and not harder. Farming is a constant learning curve, and there will always be obstacles that we aren’t expecting; we’ve come to expect that much at least. 🙂

We have big plans for next year including doubling our gross sales yet again, opening a brick and mortar store on site, starting a CSA, participating in more markets, and increasing our wholesaling so that our products can be found in more retail establishments. We are opening up our Friday mornings for field trips for small school groups this spring. We are also devising a class schedule to teach others in the community how to get their own gardens started, make their own food with vegetables from their own gardens, how to process their own chickens, how to make soap, how to care for other livestock, etc. These classes will be taught by us as well as other farmers in the Upstate. While we are considering what topics to cover, we’d love to hear from you! What kinds of classes would you like to see available here on the farm?

As we close down the farm for a short break and put the land to rest until we wake her up again for the next season, we reflect on the amazing bounty of the year and incredible journey that we are on. We couldn’t do this without the loyalty of our customers. You are the reason we can continue to serve. We do hope that you will keep in close contact to see the big things that we are about to accomplish. It’s been an amazing year, but it’s only getting better!

In the meantime, please remember that while we are not selling our famous Bounty Baskets, we will continue to provide fresh pastured and organic-fed eggs, plus a few other products like kale, arugula, and Romaine; and there is always goat milk soap as well!

egg-heart

A very happy New Year from all of us here at Harp & Shamrock Croft!

Calling All Locavores!

This year has been a very big year for Harp & Shamrock Croft! Once we had a couple of years’ experience behind us, we decided that it was time to take a chance. So we moved forward with the decision to farm full-time. You all helped make that possible with supporting us both through our sales and also with our successful crowd-funding campaign this past spring. We are so thankful for your show of support. Our sales this summer were incredible!

We consider ourselves fortunate to be a part of Hub City Farmers’ Market which runs nearly year-round, enabling us to bring out our produce weekly (plus goat milk soap and new handmade items for the gift-giving season) every month of the year! However, the last few months have caused us a bit of concern. We are going to remain positive here, because negativity and farming do not mix. We love what we do, and we would not do it if we didn’t love it. But there is something we need to say: we still need your support after summer is over.

market-september

If we are going to continue to supply you with local, fresh, sustainably raised heirloom tomatoes, green beans, okra, and squash in July, then we need you to buy your local, fresh, sustainably raised kale, arugula, radishes, lettuce, beets, and carrots in November and December. Your farmers need your support year-round. We’re not looking for sympathy. This isn’t just about your local farmers needing to pay their bills. This is about you having access to local food when you want it. We cannot be at the farmers’ markets in July if we cannot support ourselves in November, December, and January.

arugula-pick

While incredibly rewarding, farming is difficult work. There are many obstacles to contend with: the condition of the soil, pests, weather. Even a good year with the elements calls for us to be working sun-up to sun-down with planting, weeding, watering, harvesting. With all that farming requires, we absolutely need to be able to count on our customers. You, our beloved patrons, are the only way we bring in our income. You are the key. We could produce tons of produce every week, but it would amount to very little if our customers didn’t buy it.

We understand that you can go to any grocery store any time and buy produce. However, there are so many benefits to eating seasonally. The food that is sold on-farm or at your local markets is always the freshest, which means it is the most nutritious. Many people also believe that food grown in close proximity to where you live is better for you because it’s part of the same biome or environment; therefore it is more properly matched to the nutrients that your body needs. Also, consider how supporting your local farms equates to supporting your local economy, thereby keeping your money closer to your community. We can assure you that every single dollar you spend with us is money well spent.

root-vegetables

Eating locally, or seasonally, means eating what is growing in your geographical location when it is growing there. It means buying your strawberries in the spring and early summer, your tomatoes from July until October (if you’re in SC), and your kale from October through December. It means perhaps buying something new and learning how to prepare it! We love when you ask “How do you fix your eggplant?”  We might even ask you to tell us how to make something! It might also mean eating so much of a certain crop that you don’t ever want to eat it again, and then being happy to see it at the market again in 10 months. But it also means having the freshest tasting, most nutrient-dense food imaginable.

We are all in this together. We cannot be out there for you every weekend of the summer if fall and wintertime leave us unable to support ourselves. We want to be there for you. We just need your support. Please remember to buy what your local farmers are providing, and please spread the word. People listen when their friends recommend a business or a product! We are doing what we can to bring you quality as well as variety. Please help us (and yourselves) continue to do that! And since we are partnering together in this local food movement, we welcome your suggestions. We so appreciate you and want you to be happy.

For a great read on seasonal eating, read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle  by Barbara Kingsolver.