Homegrown

These tomatoes were ripe by mid-June, despite being grown outdoors in North Pole. 

I went to an elementary school where the teaching was in Lithuanian, except for one paltry hour a day devoted to English. As a result, I learned most of my English from friends.

Unfortunately, all of them were either immigrants or, like me, children of immigrants, so the knowledge we passed on to each other was a lot like the tidbits we shared about sex — incomplete and often wrong.

Which was how I came to think that becoming a vegetarian meant you picked a vegetable you loved and ate that exclusively. The next night at dinner, I pushed aside the beet salad and declared that I was now a vegetarian and would be eating only tomatoes from now on.

To say that my father became apoplectic is putting it mildly. “Hitler was a vegetarian! I did not survive him to bring up tiny Hitler vegetarians!” This pronouncement was less surprising than the fact that he yelled it in English, which we kids all thought he barely knew. No wonder he had advance warning about what rebellions we were planning, when we were thinking that we were so clever by talking about them in English.

I was reminded of this incident when I spent most of last Saturday in my greenhouse, straightening out the mess I had created by not attending to my tomato plants in a timely manner. While I never did become a vegetarian, by any correct or incorrect definition, the fact is that my winter food fantasies usually consist of warm tomatoes fresh off the vine and dripping with juices. Thus, most of my greenhouse is devoted to tomatoes, and they require more care than many other vegetables if you want to maximize your yields.

First, I had to gently pick up slumped over vines and tie them upright to the fencing that runs the length of the inside of my greenhouse, right up against the corrugated panels. There are gardeners who let their tomatoes recline along the ground but here is the problem with that: It invites rot, both of leaves and tomatoes. The wet foliage and fruit lying on the ground never quite dries between waterings, and eventually things get soft and decay.

Also, you waste a lot of water. When my plants are upright I can direct water to the area where the stem enters the ground, instead of all around. Also, once the foliage resting on the ground gets thick enough, you may be robbing your plant of water because most of the water stays on the leaves instead of going to the roots.

Once I had the plants upright, I trimmed off the bottom stems, thus giving me an even better view of where stem meets soil. It also made it easier to pull up weeds that were lurking under there.

Next, history having taught me that using my fingers to pinch back excess stems sometimes leads to stripping off part of the outside of the main stalk, I used sharp scissors to prune. As Fairbanksan Ann D. Roberts noted in her book “Alaska Gardening Guide,” “To increase the size of tomatoes and keep indeterminate vines under control, pruning is recommended. Recommendations vary on pruning, to one vine, or to one main vine and one or two secondary vines.”

If you have not done this before, don’t just willy-nilly hack off stuff. As Roberts goes on to say, “There are two kinds of shoots. The shoots that bear fruit grow from the stem. The shoots that grow in the axils of leaf and stem are the ones to pinch off while they are still small. Left alone, they will grow into more vines. Although it is true they will also bear fruit as well as leaves ... many fruits will be set, but they will be smaller fruits than if each root system had to support one, or at most, a very few vines.”

Pruning also means that the remaining, main vines will get maximum sunlight, which is crucial to good growth and ripening.

Unfortunately, there were two things that I could not fix. Even when it is only 70 degrees outside, if I don’t open the doors at both ends, my greenhouse gets hot enough to be stand-in for hell. It turned out that Ted had closed the doors, the better to mow the lawn around all sides of the greenhouse, but neglected to reopen them. And, since I did not venture down there the next two days, it was not until I looked at the thermometer that tells me the coldest and hottest temperatures in the last 24 hours, that I realized the tomatoes had been baking in temperatures of 110 degrees. Tomatoes do not pollinate at extremes of cold or heat.

The second thing I could not fix was that while tomatoes are “perfect,” in that they contain both the female and male parts needed for pollination, they do need something to stir them up so the pollen will move around. When both doors of my greenhouse are open, there is usually enough of a breeze to provide the assistance needed. However, while the greenhouse was closed, the air did not stir and during this time of prime pollination many of my flowers went unpollinated and just dropped off.

Normally, I visit my greenhouse once a day and gently tap each vine just to be sure pollination takes place. Most years I did this so regularly that I sometimes saw my older Irish wolfhound, who was tall enough to reach into the three-foot-high raised beds, wander through the greenhouse systematically hitting every plant, tomato or not, with his nose. The first time I saw him do it I laughed with delight and gave him one of the treats I always carried in my pocket, which cemented that behavior into his brain. If you or your dog are going to assist with pollination, do it when the plants are dry because wet pollen will just sit there uselessly.

On the way back to the house from the greenhouse, I noticed that my lilac was done blooming. Another chore I had neglected, removing the spent blossoms. Gardening writer Jeff Lowenfels points out that he, like so many of us, was taught to remove all dead flowers if we want the bush to give us flowers next year.

It turns out this is not entirely true. Neglect the pruning and you’ll still be enjoying the heady aroma of lilacs, just not as many of them. As Lowenfels explains, removing the spent flowers, “literally doubled the number of flowers set on each branch. It is like pinching a growing tip of any symmetrical plant; you end up with two branches. The same thing happens to lilacs, but if you do it within three or four weeks of flowering, you will get two flowers instead of two branches.”

I hope you have been a more attentive gardener than I was during the first half of June. If you were not, it is not too late to help your tomatoes and lilacs be more productive.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@acsalaska.net.