Thursday, June 13, 2013

A vibrant volunteer

Volunteer tomato plant, that is.
One picked, six more to fully ripen.  This looks like a picture-perfect cultivar, but it's not.  It's a cross-bred volunteer that arose from my home-made compost.  When I compost vegetable scraps, conditions are ideal for growing new vegetables. 
Not only is it a cross-bred volunteer, it's probably a third generation volunteer to boot.  And by "volunteer", I mean a plant that arose because of unintentional pollination followed by unintentional germination. 
This is where it germinated and grew as a weed - in a mulch bed at the base of one of our Italian cypress trees. 
Obviously a huge honkin' tomato plant doesn't belong in a landscape bed at the foot of an Italian cypress tree.  But when I saw this weed pop up, I decided to leave it there just to see how it would do. 

And this is how it has done.  This thriving wasn't a complete accident, however, specifically because that weed sprouted in a bed that has had three annual layers of new mulch added to it - mulch that has been steadily breaking down and supplying nutrients to the soil.  Remember I said that, if you do nothing else to work on improving your landscaping, make sure that you add mulch to your raised beds at least once a year.  That way, at the very least you'll have a good sheet composting system passively at work and available to you when you get to the point of having more time and money available to work on your landscape. 

This spring, every single one of our tomato plants are volunteers, whether they grew in the yard or grew in the stock tanks.  This was unintentional - I got to the suppliers too late to buy any seedlings, so I just thinned out my existing tomato weeds and let them develop instead. 

It is often undesirable to raise vegetables from interbred hybrids because their most desirable in-bred characteristics tend to fade with each successive generation, but with tomatoes, it has worked so far for us.  All of our starting hybrids were cherry or grape varieties, which might explain part of our success. As my neighbors continue to develop their own gardens and plant larger hybrids, then I might start running into trouble when their larger tomatoes begin crossing with mine. 

Here are the pros I've noticed relative to strict hybrid growing:
  • Volunteers seem to have greater disease and insect resistance.  Stink bugs and hornworms seem much less drawn to them compared to pure hybrids. 
  • Volunteer plants seem to do better in less fertile soil.
  • They also seem to persist better into hotter weather.  I'm still harvesting this spring's crop and it's almost July. 
  • Taste is as good or better. 

The cons:
  • Volunteer tomato size is definitely smaller.
  • Yield is reduced by about 30% relative to pure hybrids, but we have such a volume that we don't care about this.
  • Skin is thinner, to the point where it will often rip when the tomato is removed from the plant.  That's OK but it means you have to eat or cook them sooner as the ripped skin will cause the tomatoes to spoil faster. 
I'm supposed to take myself seriously and believe that I'm a half-decent gardener, but all this stuff simply arose as untended and unintended weeds. 

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