90 Year Old Grows Abundant Tomato Crops

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.” These words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the famous author, came to mind during a recent visit to Delbert Winkler’s tomato garden in Canoga Park.
Winkler, 90, annually grows several hundred tomato plants that, at this moment, are burgeoning with fruit in various shades of red, pink, orange and yellow. The plants, which grow in long rows, are trained up like grapevines and tied to horizontal lines of baling wire that are stretched between wooden posts.
Winkler has discarded all but the most basic cultural practices associated with growing tomatoes, with spectacular results. Again and again, Winkler made sure I understood that this was the best crop he had ever coaxed out of the sunny plot of ground that adjoins his residence.
Having sampled the tomatoes he thrust upon me during my visit, I can attest that the quality of his homegrown fruit is truly second to none.
But when I asked him for the secrets of his success, he had almost nothing to divulge.
“I put down manure before planting,” he offered, “and then, one month after planting, I give them a shot of fish emulsion.”
That’s it? That’s how you grow great tomatoes?
Well, it turns out that Winkler and his wife, Margaret, have been growing tomatoes on this patch of earth for quite a few years. Perhaps the effect of the manure is cumulative, in both positive and negative ways.
“I originally used cow manure to condition the soil, when it was available at Pierce College,” he confided, “but now I use steer and horse manure.”
Using manure year after year would certainly increase the humus content of the soil. Humus, the end product of biological decomposition – sometimes referred to as “bacterial skeletons” – is the most precious garden soil ingredient. Then again, those heavy rains this past winter could have washed out growth-inhibiting salts that are found in every type of animal manure. Winkler’s yields, no matter how large in previous years, could have been curtailed by manure salt that, built up over time, was finally drained from the soil with the record rainy season just ended, resulting in his biggest tomato crop ever.
I inquired about the birds that could be seen darting in every direction and alighting, now and then, on his tomato plants.
“Do the birds damage your crop?” I asked.
“Absolutely not!” he bellowed. “That’s how I control the insects! Look closely, do you see a single pest?”
I had to admit that his plants were completely clean; not a single insect on leaf or fruit, proof that birds consume several times their weight in insects every day. For that matter, there were no snails or slugs around, either. The constant manuring had improved soil drainage to the point where excess water, by which mollusks gain entry into a garden, had been eliminated.
On the subject of watering, Winkler, once again, had little to say.
“I bring a hose out every now and then and water down the soil between the rows.”
He controlled the growth of his plants in two ways. First, when his seedlings, which he purchased at the nursery, were 10 to 15 inches tall, he would strip off all suckers and side shoots, encouraging the development of a single stem. Second, after his mature plants reached the top row of the baling wire, at about 4 1/2 feet, he would trim back any new growth that, were it allowed to continue, would eventually get top-heavy with fruit and flop over.
Winkler’s favorite tomato varieties include “Celebrity,” “Better Boy,” “Big Beef,” the heirloom “Brandywine” and the orange-skinned, yellow-fleshed “Golden Jubilee,” whose nonacidic taste does not mean it has less acid than red tomatoes, only that it contains more sugar.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Tomatoes can be planted all summer long. Just make sure a berm, or dam of earth, 1 foot in diameter, is built around each plant so that, when the reservoir you have created is full, there will be plenty of water to soak down into the roots. It is also a good idea to detach the bottom set or two of leaves prior to planting and to bury the leafless section of the stem below the soil line. Roots will grow from the points of leaf detachment, which will improve the stability of the young plant.

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