Saturday, July 22, 2017
Last month I went to Germany to help my 90 year aunt with her garden. I expected to have it all to myself but she instead led the way in all the efforts, from selecting plants for her window boxes (she drove us to three nurseries in her search), to instructions on weeding (because there are some weeds she eats), to moving stone slabs to widen a walkway (I was worried she might slip and fall on the moss-covered narrowing path). She was a wonder to behold and a poster child for the idea that gardening keeps you young in body and spirit. I thought you might be interested in her unique approach to planting tomatoes.
Behind her garage she has attached wooden scaffolding. Each year she reattaches 30 ft. of heavy vinyl covering on top of it and, after some adjusting for the same amount of overlap on each side laces the vinyl in place through a series of punched holes at the bottom first and then at the top. She told me the last few years she has done this all by herself.
The two of us pulled and stretched to be sure the vinyl was tight and overlapped over the wood. The purpose was to prevent rain from collecting and weighing the structure down. Each hanging corner of the vinyl than had a string and a square paving stone attached to the end of the corner. The string around the stone wrapped around as if it was a package. This helped the stone hang squarely in the center.
She wanted the stones to dangle slightly above the ground so they hold the side flap in place and keep it from flapping in the wind.
She clearly has years of trial and error invested in this process. You might ask why this whole effort was necessary. She does this to control the amount of water the tomatoes receive and hand waters them throughout the season using water collected in the nearby rain barrel. It also heats up the soil by providing a mini greenhouse effect.
I had already weeded and expanded the bed slight creating a clear margin between it and the grass bath before the cover was put in place. I raked through our trample marks one more time before we began planting. The soil was really lovely.
In mid-May things already were picked over in the nursery where Tante Gisela normally gets her tomatoes. So we weren’t able to find 12 of the same kind that she usually purchases. The four odd varieties were in the center of the front row. I personally would be a little overwhelmed at the prospect of 12 cherry tomato plants for two people...her and my 93 year-old uncle… but my gentle questioning of the quantity was met with certitude that it was in fact to be 12 tomato plants and no less.
When she went off to collect stinging nettles, I cleaned each spiral support pool with some kind of unfamiliar, smelly oil substance to coat the pole and ward off diseases. Then per her instructions, I organized each of the twelve cherry tomato plants next to their associated pole evenly distributed, but with the front and back row staggered.
I prepared each plant by pinching off bottom three leaves. She was not interested in pinching the emerging leaves because she told me she wanted tall plants and not pushy ones. I gave up making suggestions and went with the flow. Tante Gisela then proceeded to dig a gallon-sized hole for a three inch pot and fill it with chopped nettle leaves, a cup of sand and two tablespoons of multicolored fertilizer beads. Everything was mixed around with a shovel. The tomato plant was placed in the hole and back filled with soil so the level reached about an inch below the remaining bottom leaves.
Later I asked other German relatives if this was what they did and they said no. Intrigued by this elaborate set of steps and particularly about adding stinging nettles, I searched on the Internet and found no description of her tips but I did find this: https://www.plantopedia.com/stinging-nettles/ (A slightly different take on using them as fertilizer.)
And if she does end up with too many tomatoes, I have to translate this recipe for her into German: http://fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com/2009/03/fire-roasted-tomato-soup-with-nettle.html
Karen Rindal is an avid gardener and served as 2015-2017 President of NCAGC District III's Fairfax Ferns Garden Club in Centerville, VA. We are hoping to hear back on Tante Gisela's tomato harvest.