Trials, Tribulations, and Tomatoes

I'm hanging on to this thought, because this year, growing tomatoes has been anything but easy.  All winter long, visions of sweet, juicy, heirloom tomatoes danced through my head as I poured over the seed catalogs, but then spring happened (or rather, it didn't).  From there, it's been one challenge after another this year, from uncooperative weather, to blight, to green tomatoes that just won't hurry up and ripen!

Now to be fair, while it has certainly been a challenging year, it's not like we're talking total tomato devastation, either.  There are definitely good things going on, and even some really interesting things, so when I say it's not been easy, what I really mean is, there's a lot going on, and it's taking an immense amount of time and energy to keep on top of it all.  In other words, the tomatoes are kind of kicking my butt this year.
A Cold, Wet Start
Not to keep beating the same drum, but Mama Nature kind of forgot about Minnesota when she was handing out spring this year.  The cold start didn't have a detrimental impact on the tomatoes, but it didn't exactly get them off to a roaring start, either.  Even though the cool, wet wet weather was somewhat helpful in getting the transplants established, those transplants went in the ground 2-4 weeks later than usual and then early blossoms dropped left and right because temperatures were too cool to set fruit.

At that point, I wasn't too concerned or stressed out about it (there's a whole lot of growing season ahead when it's only June), but I did have to resign myself to the fact that there would not be any early tomatoes this year.
The Plight of the Blight 
Eventually warmer weather made it our way, and with it, another challenge materialized: fungus.  It started out with Early Blight, which was annoying, but at least predictable and manageable with a moderate amount of effort.  Right around the time I felt like I had a good handle on it and had earned a little break from the tomato plants to focus on any number of the other things in the garden, I started noticing a lot of other black spots and blighty-looking marks on the tomatoes at the community garden. I haven't been able to pin down exactly what it is (Septoria Leaf Spot or Bacterial Speck are my best guesses, but it's not really a textbook match for either ailment). What ever it is, it spreads like blight, only (and unfortunately) much more aggressively.

(Oh, and the kicker: these are the tomatoes that are generously spaced, have plenty of air flow, a nice thick layer of mulch... everything that should make them healthy and happy.  My tomatoes in the raised beds that are crammed into a veritable wall of co-mingled tomato vines are looking healthy as can be.  Go figure.)

Not willing to let the tomatoes go down without a fight, I started a routine of heavy fish emulsion feedings (fish emulsion is good source of nitrogen for green growth, while still providing a little phosphorous for flower and fruit development and potassium for overall plant cell quality) and, at the suggestion of a fellow community gardener, a foliar spray of neem oil (which is effective in controlling a number of fungal conditions in plants, but you should take care when using it in the garden when bees are active).  My hope was that I could get the plants to out-grow the spread of the infection, while also containing (or at least slowing) the spread.   This combination was surprisingly effective, but also quite time consuming.  Between the time it would take mix up and apply the fish emulsion, stake up the new growth, prune out the worst of the effected foliage, and then mix up and apply the neem oil spray, there was little time to do anything else in the garden most nights, but as long as it was working, great!
Weathering the Storm
And it did work for a while.  Up until last week, I was feeling good about how great the tomatoes were looking, despite it all.  The plants were growing and setting fruit, and I had just started to back down a bit on the nitrogen to transition the plants into full-on fruit production mode, when last week's storm blew through and seemed to set me back an entire month in a matter of two days. [insert deep sigh here].

(Only) four (out of forty) stakes snapped at ground level during the storm, and there were a number of "branches" that ended up on the ground thanks to the heavy downpour, strong winds, and hail, so there were plants to re-stake, vines to tie up, and dirt encrusted leaves to clean up.  I completed the clean up as quickly as I could, but to no avail.  The blighty stuff has returned with a vengeance, so now it's back to full-on defense, but I'm not feeling nearly as optimistic that I can out run it this time, but time will tell.
Topsy Turvy Tomatoes
Meanwhile, back in the raised beds at home, the tomatoes are thankfully much healthier.  So much so, that I've kind of stopped fussing with the Early Blight hanging out on the bottom leaves all together, because compared to what is gong on out at the community garden, it's the least of my worries.  But even the super healthy tomatoes have been a lot of work this year.

Normally the tomatoes in the raised beds grow up along the fence in the extra large, extra sturdy tomato cages, which are also reinforced with several six foot tall stakes.  This is usually enough support to get them to the top of the fence, where they just sort of naturally cascade over the fence and start to grow back down the other side.  But this year, the tomatoes are so top heavy, that even though they are already growing several feet down the other side, the plants, supports and all, are starting to fall down. As a result, I had to run twine behind each tomato cage to tie each tomato cage directly to the fence for extra support--not an easy feat when the plants are easily seven or eight feet tall, and 3 feet deep.  I'm definitely earning every single one of these tomatoes this year!  
Seeing Green
That is, if they ever actually ripen!  The tomatoes have been painfully slow in showing any signs of turning color this year, which isn't surprising given our late start and the fact that it's felt more like September than August these past few weeks. Yes, I know that they will ripen eventually, but after all we've been through this year, the simple reward of even a single ripe tomato is what every Minnesota gardener has been looking forward to for months, and the delay has felt like one more trial to endure. But at least we're all in this one together (and it looks like the long range forecast will be bringing back a little more heat to help move the tomatoes in the right direction).
Hope for the Harvest
Slowly, but surely, the tomatoes are starting to ripen, and if nothing else, I'm at least keeping my tomato plants alive and upright for now, so I'm holding out hope that when all is said and done, the tomato harvest will not be nearly as grim as it has sometimes felt over the past few months.  I'm still hanging on to that saying and hoping that it proves to be true, and as soon as we're enjoying meals of homegrown tomatoes, the memory of these challenges will be erased (or at least we'll feel as though it was all worth it!).