The Tomato Dance

At Mariquita Farm we’re getting lined up to do the “Florida Weave.” This probably sounds like the name of a square dance, but actually the “Florida weave” describes a common way to stake up tomato plants.In the Central Coast, April 15th is generally considered the “frost-free” date. From the 15th on we’re unlikely to suffer any overnight freezing. Mother Nature makes no promises about the temperatures she’ll cast. This year, on the morning of the 20th there was snow on the top of the Sierra De Salinas south-west of Soledad, and I can remember various frosts on the Pajaro Valley floor after the 15th over the years, but I always start to plant my frost tender tomato vines in mid-April. A month after we plant the tomatoes it’s time to start tying them up.

Not all varieties of tomato require tying. Determinate tomato breeds set most of their flowers at once, so the harvest, when it comes, is relatively concentrated. Determinate tomatoes are often harvested by machine. Because tomatoes destined for mechanized harvest need to be tough and rubbery to withstand the rigors of being picked by a blunt instrument many determinate tomato breeds are designed to have fruit that can be beaten off the vine green, then ripened artificially with ethylene gas, before being cooked down into tomato paste for canning. But I don’t grow tomatoes for industrial processing. I prefer to grow the so-called indeterminate tomatoes, which flower over a long period.

As indeterminate tomatoes flower they keep growing….and growing….and growing. Tomatoes evolved in tropical South America as short lived perennials with a rampant, vining habit. One wild tomato type that is still available to gardeners is the so-called currant cherry tomato. Currants have fruits that are hardly bigger than peas, but the vines can reach over twenty feet. The old fashioned, heirloom breeds of tomatoes that I plant still show off their origins as rampant, perennial tropical vines by sprawling over a wide area if they’re not restrained. To avoid treading on the tomato plants, to make harvest easier, and to assure that the fruits are not laying on the dirt it is necessary to introduce a little discipline into the life of an indeterminate tomato.

So we pound wooden stakes at ten foot intervals down the tomato rows while the plants are still young. As the vines grow, we lash lines of twine from stake to stake, passing first on one side of each pole, then on the other side, so that the foliage is supported between the taunt strings in an upright fashion. That’s the Florida Weave. As the plants grow up we spin more twine higher and higher up the poles, so we end up with linear walls of tomato foliage. The workers can walk easily down the rows to inspect the plants, repair the drip irrigation tubes that run along the rows at the base of the plants, or trap for gophers. Breezes can pass between the rows, keeping the plants dry so that any threat of losing plants to humidity loving mildews is mitigated. Eventually, clusters of colorful, flavorful fruits will hang by the cluster, well above the dusty ground, and easy to pick. I’m planning on a bountiful harvest, but in the end, I remind myself that success isn’t only up to me. Farming is always a dance, and nature calls the tune.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

Tomatoes and Basil and Padron Peppers: Upick and Mini Market plans for the summer:

Mariquita has many heirloom and sauce tomatoes planted, lots of tender basil and loads of pimiento de padron peppers, and friarellis too! We plan to have many upick Saturdays (maybe the occasional weekday too) in August, Sept. and October. We also hope to host mini 2 hour markets throughout the city in different neighborhoods with canning portions of the same items. Stay tuned! If you have a great driveway that would make a good one-time only Mariquita Mini Market later this summer, let me know. Thanks!


3 Responses to “The Tomato Dance”

  1. 1 Bonnie

    I know I work for you guys, but can I hang out after the route at a padron/friarelli U-pick? Just the mention of those nummies has my eyes rolling & my tongue lolling. Cue the Homer Simpson drooly-gargle sound…

  2. 2 Farmer John

    I always feel like some spider weaving all that line around my tomatoes. Every year I seem to get better at finding ways to use less stakes and more twine! Come late fall it feels like you are walking through a tomato forest as you pass down the isles.

  3. 3 Brendon

    The heirloom cheery tomato is my favorite to grow> The kids love them.

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