The two plots are small – 8X11 and 8X14 – and hold 32 tomato plants. By early November, those plants had yielded 3,527 large tomatoes.
“We pulled a bunch of green tomatoes the other day to give away – 408 of them,” says Steve Brister, a tomato enthusiast. “It’s getting chilly so they had to come out. We’re expecting a frost tonight so this should be the end of the season.”
That frost will close a bountiful harvest that has found its way into many Mississippi hill kitchens. There is a good reason for that: a pledge Brister made in early summer.
“By June, we’d had three periods of no rain. At that time, we’d been helping my wife’s parents get into assisted living. One Thursday afternoon, I had to travel to Jackson to help them. The plots were very dry and I just had to leave them alone.
“I told the Lord it was in His hands. I said, ‘I tell you what, Lord. If you’ll find a free minute to help with these tomatoes, I’ll give them all away.”
Brister was away for four days. “I came back home and those plots had been rained on twice and the plants had grown two feet. The third set of blooms had set tomatoes.
“I walked back in the house and told my wife, ‘We’re in business, girl. We’re fixing to have a whole bunch of tomatoes to give away.’”
Brister, a Yazoo City resident, is a retiree from Mississippi Chemical and moved to 160 acres bought in the late 1970s. With his wife, Barbara, he raises commercial-grade feeder calves on much of that land. They also have several recreational areas; a couple of lakes, deer and turkey hunting.
The land is up in the hills just three miles from prime Delta farmland. The bottoms are productive, containing the same rich dirt of the cropland up the road. The combination of hills and trees makes for some pretty scenery – especially at this time of the year with the leaves turning.
“I’ve been associated with agriculture my whole life,” says Brister. “I spent a lot of time as a boy with my grandfather, a truck farmer and cattleman. He worked in Hinds County raising peppers and tomatoes.
“You could say that three generations of my family are responsible for coming up with tomato-growing ‘recipe’ we use.”
And it’s the tomato-growing recipe that Brister’s neighbors and friends always ask for.
So you took the recipe from your grandfather and tweaked it?
“It’s actually an amalgamation from my family and friends. It’s been put together over the years. But I certainly learned a lot from my grandfather and my dad.
“You can pick a tomato when it has a white ‘star’ on the bottom of it. That’s what truck farmers look for before pulling them. If a green tomato has a white star, it will go ahead and, in a week or two, mature to a good fruit. Without that white star, it will never turn.”
Brister is quick to give credit. It was actually his step-father-in-law who came up with the tomato “cages” he now uses. “I grow tomatoes in an 18-inch dog-wire cage that’s five-feet tall. There are windows cut into them and you can reach in and gather the fruit.”
The beauty of the cages is that early on the deer can’t get to the plants. Deer really love the young, tender leaves on those plants.
“The other thing about the cages is if you’re lucky enough to get big fruit, the big tomatoes will lean against the wire. That means they don’t fall off the vines or tear up the junction where it connects to the main stalk.
“I grow my vines very thick. We plant them close together and I’ve been experimenting with not pulling any suckers.”
Why did Brister begin counting his tomatoes in 2013?
“It goes back to last season. In 2012, we only had 17 plants but we estimated over 1,000 tomatoes had come off them. So, I wanted to follow the tomato numbers very closely this year.”
His two plots are hemmed in with cross-ties. “I bring in new soil – only the depth of the cross-tie lying flat. That’s all that’s needed because tomatoes don’t grow deep, the roots stay shallow.
“I’ve tried planting them deep, some folks advocate for that. But I’ve never found that to be successful.”
Brister likes for his tomato plants to take off within four or five days of planting. “If it doesn’t do that, you won’t have a great plant. So, you have to plant it shallow in the ground and watch it go. A tomato plant can grow 6 to 8 inches per day if you give it the right nutrients and water.
“So, I tried jamming the plants up close just to see if it would make a difference to shade the roots. July and August in Mississippi is doggone hot. At the same time, tomatoes need to catch nine to 10 hours of sun a day. However, that much sun in 100-degree, no-rain, Mississippi weather will wither them up quick. That’s why I decided to leave all the leaves on the plants – to shade the roots.”
At the same time, Brister found another benefit of the practice: shading the fruit. “You keep the fruit shaded and out of direct sunlight, and you’ll have bigger tomatoes. Sunlight right on the fruit in July and August makes it go ahead and mature and the tomato won’t be as big as could be.”
Brister pulls no suckers off the plants. “Almost all the tomato-growers will tell you to pull the suckers after the first set on the bottom. But I don’t do that. If you fertilize and water them properly, you can support the fruit and the suckers.”
What about Brister’s recipe?
You want equal parts of:
“Triple-8 is an N,P,K fertilizer. I got that from my father. He shied away from 13/13/13 on tomatoes and I got that from him.”
- Cottonseed meal.
- Bone meal.
“The bone meal provides a lot of phosphorus, which is essential.”
- Epson salt.
“Epson salt is good for trying to stop ‘block’ at the bottom of the plant.”
“Tomato plants must have calcium to produce good fruit.”
- Cow manure.
“I find the manure and cottonseed meal kind of work together. They hold moisture and are slow-release. The mix doesn’t overwhelm the plant.”
- Mix the above ingredients in rainwater.
Rainwater is superior because it’s pure, says Brister. “I try to stay away from any chlorine. The plants respond to rainwater much better than what comes out of the faucet. Rainwater and tomatoes just go together.”
- Dig a hole six inches deep in soil that can drain off excess water.
- Place a handful of the above mix in the bottom of the hole.
- Put more rainwater in hole.
- Plant the tomato plant.
“I prefer Better Boy tomatoes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Better_Boy). I’ve found they handle leaf wilt blight better. That disease can kill your plants overnight. I’ve tried many varieties but the Better Boys are just the best.”
- Pick tomatoes when they turn yellow on the bottom.
- If you see that your plants stop growing or leaves turn yellow, insert a Jobe’s tomato stick next to the plant.
- Use wire cages. Do not stick them.
- Garden dirt is normally good for two years.
When should you plant?
“Tomatoes don’t like cold nights. When the nighttime temperatures hit the upper 50s or low 60s, get ready. I planted this year’s crop in mid-May.”
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- Do not leave cull tomatoes near your garden. Failure to do so will lead deer, birds and squirrels to your plants.
- Put hay around the base of the tomatoes in late July. This allows the soil to hold moisture and helps to stop weeds.
- Don’t give up on your tomato plants.
“I got three distinct crops this year: the bottom crop, the third cluster and the fifth cluster. If you’ll keep watering and fertilizing them throughout the season, you can get three crops. Most folks give up after two crops when the plants start shedding at the bottom. That plant is just trying to breathe. I’ve seen 200 to 300 blooms set within a 24-hour period.”
- Encourage bumblebee activity.
“You need blooms but you also need bumblebees. Honeybees find it hard to get to a tomato bloom. They come in horizontally and try to hit the yellow on the side of the bloom. They won’t pollinate the bloom.
“A bumblebee comes in and goes up under the bloom where it’s needed. Honeybees are used to coming in from the top onto clover. I keep natural grasses around that bumblebees like.”