Ellis Howard has been involved professionally in the agriculture business for 30 years. He has grown tomatoes for 5 years. Laurelwood Farms is associated with Laurelwood Academy, Inc. in Gaston, and is a part of the academy's curriculum.
I spotted the greenhouse in the distance and wanted to see what was inside. It so happened that Ellis (who manages the farm) was there and seemed to consider it no trouble at all to give a perfect stranger (me) a greenhouse tour right then and there.
Tomato heaven. That's what I thought as soon as I looked inside--row after row of tomato vines loaded with fruit was all I saw at first. I could look at that all day.
Off we went to the office nearby to see the computer system that Ellis uses to assist him in managing the tomato crop. I was given a hydroponic gardening catalog and lent a set of video tapes all about professional hydroponic tomato farming.
I left promising to return the tapes in a week (which I did) and thinking
what a great man Ellis was to give of his time so freely and to trust a
stranger with his belongings.
Tomatoes are started from seed in November. A crop of tomatoes is produced from March to October. (I asked, "Why not just take cuttings from the mature tomatoes as they root very well? Why start with seed?" Ellis replied that seeds have more "vigor.")
Preferred varieties: generally any Dutch variety, specifically 'Trust' and 'Match'.
The seeds are grown in rockwool starter cubes in the germination house (24 ft x 36 ft, photo at right), which are then placed in rockwool blocks. The rockwool blocks are placed on rockwool slabs which rest on insulation in the greenhouse (120 ft x 45 ft) to grow for the remainder of the season.
Artificial lighting (high pressure sodium lamps) is used from December to May. The lamps "wake up" the plants (as Ellis puts it) at 2 am and stay on through 8 am. A cheaper electrical rate is available at this time; also, Ellis feels this to be a better method than starting up the lights as natural daylight is waning.
Watering is of course controlled by the computer system and varies according to the amount of light (3 to 15 times a day). On hot days, each plant will be given 3 to 4 quarts of water.
Ellis uses his own mixture of fertilizer. The plants are fertilized every time they are watered.
Pruning advice: Remove all suckers. Suspend wires above plants at 8 foot level. Attach 30 ft strings to the wire for each plant. When the plant reaches that level, keep it there by removing the lower leaves as they begin to yellow and lowering the plant on its string. (This means you will have long stems lying along the ground or ,if you're growing tomatoes in a pot, very gently wind the bare stem around the base of the pot.)
Harvest advice: Tomato fruit should have a white "star" on the blossom end and some color before picking. Ripen at 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the photo at right, you see Carla Rogers harvesting fruit at Laurelwood Farms. The small "rail car" she is sitting on has a seat for her and a place for the tomato bin. The car rolls smoothly between the 100 foot long rows of tomatoes on rails made of pipe custom built for the greenhouse, facilitating harvest.
Seed germination: Maintain constant moisture and soil temperature of 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as seeds have sprouted, keep top of soil dry. Use a mist system to maintain proper humidity level.
Temperatures in the greenhouse should be consistent--no extremes. Never below 62 at night; best if not above 75 during the day. Average should be 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pollination should be done daily (even though there is a 3-day window for pollination of flowers).
Irrigation should be consistent. Tomatoes should not dry out--nor should they be kept too wet.
Argus Control Systems Ltd.
#10 - 1480 Foster Street
White Rock, B.C. V4B 3X7
Growth Zone Systems Inc.
1735 Cedardale Road
Mt. Vernon, WA 98273
My thanks to Ellis Howard for giving us so much information and so much of his time. Thanks to Carla Rogers, too, for consenting to her photo being put up for a world of people to see.
See the hydroponic tomato notes and sources page for even more! (S/B up 3 March)