Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Tomatoes at the edge

I’m useless at growing tomatoes the ‘normal’ way. I never seem to get them strung up right onto their supports, or am too late tying up the ripening bunches before they split the stem under their own weight. I forget to pinch them out so end up with an impenetrable tangle of misshapen top-heavy plants that flop on surrounding vegetables or deprive them of light. Then I invariably manage to break half the fruiting branches trying to sort them all out. And I always seem to end up with bottom end rot. If they weren’t so delicious I would begrudge them all the space they take up and their high maintenance.

But high maintenance isn’t nature’s way. So last year I left a self-seeded one to its own devices to see what would happen if I just let it do what came naturally. It took up an entire raised bed section by the time it had finished sprawling everywhere, but it did fine for the lack of attention and gave us much more tomatoes than my inexpertly tended ones, although some went rotten for sitting on the ground too long. So I hit on the idea of growing them off the edges of the terraces, and this year have planted two reasonably reachable terrace edges with a variety of beef, plum, vine and cherry tomatoes to see how they all do.

Tomatoes growing off the edges of the terraces

So far, so good. They all look extremely healthy, despite the fact that lack of time and water for the hosepipe has meant that care has been sporadic. None had been watered for a fortnight before I managed to get to them this weekend. The only effect of this seems to have been in retarding the growth of the plants somewhat. Those with a headstart and some trickle-down dampness from the solar shower are now tumbling over the edge of their terrace wall and the fruit is beginning to ripen. Far from being a problem, the usual chaotic tangle of unpinched-out plants seems to be mutually supportive and there is no sign yet of the weight of fruit on any one plant dragging it out of the ground or bending the main stem to breaking point, which is something I’d wondered about.

And the first fruit is now ripening. No bottom end rot!

Tomatoes growing off the edges of the terraces

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  1. Luise July 30, 2012

    Great, let nature do it her way. I do a mixture of taking care and letting them ramble and it works allright. Letting them spread on the ground also lets them take root again and again where they touch the ground, bringing more nutrients into the plant. And any branches you might prune or accidentally break off will root again if you put them into moist soil (that’s an easy way to get more tomatoes!).

  2. Quinta do Vale July 31, 2012

    Thanks for that tip Luise!

  3. Lorna Hart September 7, 2013

    The is is our first year growing stuff in Portugal and our tomatoes have been a disappointment recently. We have bottom end rot and some little bugs which make their home inside the fruit and sometimes spoil all of an otherwise healthy looking fruit. Our neighbours spray everything but we can’t speak Portuguese very well and don’t know how to prevent these bugs. Any help would be welcome.

  4. Quinta do Vale September 7, 2013

    Bugs will be bugs and bottom end rot happens. If you don’t poison your soil with chemicals (and even if you do), it’s part and parcel of growing. The best advice I can give is to concentrate on improving the quality of your soil. It’s a long-term project, but as each year passes, you’ll see the very real, cumulative and permanent benefits. Our environment is so degraded now it’s difficult to grow healthy vibrant plants which can resist pests and diseases from the off, so I try to grow enough so I can afford some losses, meanwhile working on the soil. 3 years on, my garden is way more healthy and lush than it was when I started, but every year is different and every year some plants just don’t do well. Some of my tomatoes have bottom end rot and bugs this year too, and the standard tomato seedlings I bought at market all turned out to be cherry tomatoes instead so I’m going to be a bit short on passata this year, but that’s just how it goes. I concentrate on my soil, on growing as large a diversity of food plants as I can, on companion planting and avoiding monocultures to confuse pests and limit damage, and on continually experimenting to find the conditions each plant prefers. I may not always have as many of one variety as I’d wish, but I’m never short of something to eat. Good luck!

  5. Prajna September 11, 2015

    Hi Wendy, bottom end rot is an easy one to fix. It is caused by lack of calcium in the soil or inability of the plant (also affects peppers, cucumber and aubergine) to take up the calcium that is there. If the soil is lacking calcium (possible in a sandy granite soil like ours here) crushed egg shells may help and some swear by powdered milk as an instant fix.

    Plants will have problems taking up calcium if watering is irregular or they are over fed once the flowers open and fruit are forming. That’s because the plant grows rapidly and can’t take up the calcium quickly enough to keep up.

    Hope that helps.

  6. Quinta do Vale September 11, 2015

    Yes I’ve read that theory about bottom end rot. And several others. Only trouble is, it doesn’t quite conform to what I’ve observed in practice. I’m on schist soils here, not granite. The unamended topsoil is a clay-rock mix with very little organic matter, low calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous levels, and reasonable levels of potassium. The soil pH is on the acid side of neutral. The low calcium levels don’t seem to be a problem. I’ve had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year in a relatively undeveloped bed with just a smattering of compost and a good mulch and no bottom end rot at all. I don’t feed my tomatoes.

    I’ve grown tomatoes off the edge of the terrace shown in this post every year since I wrote this in 2012 (yes I know that’s not regarded as good practice, but it works for me) with much the same level of care. The only obvious variables then are the weather that year, the variety of tomatoes, and their planting time. Mostly I don’t get bottom end rot. Sometimes I do in a handful of fruits. It tends to be the earliest ones.

    The one consistent thing I’ve noticed in my 6-year experience with tomatoes here so far is that if I wait until the volunteer tomatoes take off in the beds before planting out seedlings, then I have a great deal more success and far less problems. If I plant before the volunteers appear, the tomatoes tend to run into more trouble, whether it’s bottom end rot or something else. Last year, with the damp cool summer we had, the ones I planted early got blight. The volunteers, which were very late that year, didn’t. This year it was much warmer and drier earlier on, so appeared to be a good time to plant, but the volunteers didn’t appear. This time I waited for them before planting any tomatoes at all and am having the best year ever. Whether that will continue to be the key variable, who knows, but for the time being I’m following it.

    Realistically though, living things are open systems within a vast web of complex interactions and interconnections. There have to be far more variables at work in any given individual situation than we can ever hope to quantify. To me therefore, it makes much more sense to simply follow nature’s lead than try to work it all out with our pitifully inadequate science.

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