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State of Mind: The True Cost of Tomatoes

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A lot of people jumped into gardening last summer. I don’t know if it was because they were bored during the pandemic lockdown or were just plain crazy. My response was similar to one you might hear from comedian Lewis Black: a blustery, jowl-shaking, and vociferous “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!”

Of course, by “gardening” I mean what everyone thinks of as gardening, which is growing tomatoes.

Now, I can hear your objections already. “But Lare, gardening is one of the great joys of summer!” To that I toss my head back and let out a mild laugh of derision.  

If you are new to growing tomatoes, do you have any idea of the vast array of impediments to success Mother Nature will throw at you? 

In the case of tomatoes there are threats of biblical proportions, such as drought and windstorms and this year probably cicadas. There are also the more tomato-specific threats: early blight, late blight, Alternaria stem canker, Fusarium wilt, gray leaf spot, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus, Verticillium wilt, and tomato hornworms to name just a few. 

To be successful you need to equip yourself properly with tools and equipment to adjust growing conditions so your tomatoes are happy. And keep in mind tomatoes are the prima donnas of the garden and therefore expect the best of everything. Here are some considerations. 

If the tomato garden you are planning is large, i.e., capable of keeping your family in tomatoes for a whole year, I suggest a Lamborghini Mach VRT 250 tractor with a 10-bottom plow. This will make soil prep a cinch. Do not allow anyone to talk you into the slightly faster but smaller Ferrari Vega L80 tractor, which I think is built by Fiat. 

If the tomato garden you are planning is less than a quarter acre, you may be able to get by with a walk-behind tiller. Check the Lamborghini website to see if such a tool is available. 

Tomatoes enjoy raised beds. Although modern-day pressure treated lumber is now considered by many to be safe in the garden, consider using more elegant and expensive cedar or redwood timbers to build them, simply because that’s what your tomato plants would expect.

You will need to adjust your soil’s pH and nutrient levels to make them optimal for tomatoes. For this you will need a soil test kit. You will also want to have on hand some bags of amendments, such as fast-acting lime, bone meal, rock phosphate, compost, cow manure, and peat moss just in case something is “missing.” Do not use nitrogen, however. It’s cheap and tomatoes know it.

Many people rely on farm-and-garden stores where they can get tomato plants that are ready to be set out in the garden, but if you are a true aficionado, you will probably want to start your own. That will require perusing the seed catalogs, purchasing seeds for the varieties you want to grow, and starting the plants indoors while there is still snow on the ground. To do this you will also need to purchase seed-starting soil mix, pots and trays, and grow lights, and set up a place in your home where the tiny tomato plants will be happy, which is usually where they can see the TV. If this requires temporarily moving the sofa onto the porch, so be it. 

It should not cost you more than $500 to start your tomatoes indoors. Keep in mind, however, that tomatoes started indoors become spoiled and are never truly happy being moved outdoors. Consider buying a greenhouse.

Tomatoes love constant levels of moisture and warmth, and really enjoy being placed in the garden through plastic mulch. Large rolls of this are available for sale at reasonable prices at your local farm-and-garden store.

The growing season is short here in Central Vermont. That means you must put your tomato plants in the garden as soon as you can in spring. You will therefore want to have on hand the equipment needed to protect them against nasty turns in weather (I once lost my tomatoes to frost on a Fourth of July weekend). This could be as simple as some bed sheets to cover the plants should frost threaten, but if you are really into growing tomatoes you will want to go the more elaborate route and purchase hoops and fabric or plastic covers to create tunnels. An expenditure in the vicinity of $200 should do it.

As your tomato plants grow, you will want to stake them in some way to keep the fruits off the ground. Wooden stakes will do, but there are many more systems, such as cages and ladders, available on-line or at garden shops for slightly more money.     

If you follow these simple suggestions you may get a bountiful crop of tomatoes. I say “may’’ because Mother Nature is still calling the shots. And you will have done it for about $139.48 per pound. That may seem kind of high for something you can also get at a supermarket for much less. My wife, however, said she loves the flavor of home-grown tomatoes, and she just told me to buy the Lamborghini.