Friday, July 1, 2011

Shifting Lines of Survival

This spring, I went out on a limb and set up a tomato garden with plants from a high quality nursery in California. The outlay seems outrageous between buying plants, special fabric pots, cages, fertilizer, soil, and the absolutely necessary water meter, but I felt confident that these high producers would pay for the initial outlay over the course of five years. The plants are growing beautifully and now range from three to five feet tall. It is July first, and we have yet to get a tomato.

Now, admittedly, the nursery did not want to deliver until mid-May, and a good thing with the wacky weather, featuring wild temperature swings, massive downpours, and crazy winds, but the plants did go in and soon blooms were popping on nine of the ten plants. But, out of fifty or so blooms, only about eleven set fruit. I'd read that tomato plants were self-fertile, meaning that each flower contained male and female parts, but to my fascination required a very specific condition before fertilization takes place--good vibrations. It seems that bees provide an ideal buzz, a little tickle that resonates at the exact right frequency for maximal pollen release which then falls onto the bee's butt for convenient delivery to the next flower. Aha! That's why a friend suggested beating the plant with a broom! And, you know, I hadn't seen many bees out there. Armed with this knowledge, I wandered through the tomato grove (is that right? grove?) and gave the plants a good shake and occasionally flicked a flower with my finger.

No fruit set.

I read more about the good vibrations, including a delightful tidbit where tomato farmers ambled through the plants with a vibrator specially designed for tomato sex. As I pondered the age old question about a universal frequency for proper vibratory stimulation across species, I came upon an earth-shattering and eye-opening piece of information: tomato plants generally fertilize best when nighttime temperatures range between sixty and seventy degrees.


Daytime temperatures here have been consistently in the high nineties to mid-one hundreds for the past few weeks. That, of course, drags the nighttime ranges up as well. I checked the forecast. Nighttime temps would be in the mid-seventies for the foreseeable future.

This struck me hard when I realized that shifting temperatures and increasingly wild weather will make the chances of survival through one's garden all the more difficult. I could only do so much to mitigate for temperature at night. I could water frequently for the daytime temps, but I could not drag the air-conditioner out to the tomato patch. I did toss a four inch thick layer of straw onto the cement on which the pots rest--I figure that accumulated heat that was released at night by the cement would further thwart the appropriate temps. The straw is reflective and should work.

But now, I ask myself, will tomatoes become a fall crop? Will new varieties need to be developed to adapt to this late season regimen--early heat and late cool weather?

These are the sorts of questions that we will not have the luxury of centuries of slow change and learning by observation. We need to experiment on a massive scale. We need smart people who want to be the new "scientists" who are more concerned about dealing with aphids than apps and particle accelerators.

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