‘Learning by doing’ works for Cal Poly’s annual Tomato Mania

This year students raised 57 different varieties of tomatoes to sell

Special to The TribuneApril 3, 2013 

From left are Becky Lacy, Rachel Land, Mason Duarte, Daniel Gumbiner and Crosby Sperling with their seedling tomatoes. All are students who work on Tomato Mania.

MASON DUARTE

  • IF YOU GO TO TOMATO MANIA:

    Date and time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 12-13

    Location: Cal Poly Plant Shop, Building 48, on Via Carta Road

    Phone number: 756-1106

    COST OF PLANTS:

    One-gallon plants: $6, or $25 for five

    One-gallon grafted plants: $10

    Come early for the best selection. Park in designated areas, as cars parked on the street may be ticketed. The Cal Poly Plant Shop will also be open during the sale, offering other student-grown plants including cut flowers, landscape plants and houseplants.

When it comes to tomatoes, some gardeners can go a little nuts. You might even call it a mania.

How fitting that Cal Poly has dubbed its annual plant extravaganza Tomato Mania. This year’s 13th annual event will take place Friday and Saturday, April 12-13 at the Poly Plant Shop on campus. The sale is put on by the student-run shop as well as enterprise students who take it on as a project to learn hands-on about the business end of agriculture. Profits are shared between those students and Cal Poly’s Horticulture and Crop Science Department.

Sheer variety is the draw for many Tomato Mania regulars. This year’s sale will feature 57 tomato varieties, including heirlooms, hybrids and cherries. A few standouts: the dusky-hued Cherokee Purple, the sweet yellow cherry called Golden Nugget, the sweet-tart Sungold hybrid cherry, the perfect-for-pots Tiny Tim, the old-fashioned canning tomato Bonnie Best, and the richly-flavored Black Brandywine. There will also be the Murray Smith tomato, which was developed by a Cal Poly professor and is specially adapted to San Luis Obispo’s climate.

Plants come in one-gallon containers and cost between $6 and $10. It’s more than the price of tomatoes at your average garden center, and for good reason. First of all, the $10 plants are grafted onto disease-resistant root stock that makes them more resistant to infection by common tomato viruses and fungi. This often results in a longer and more bountiful harvest.

Also, students have chosen varieties that grow well locally. Many do well in areas such as San Luis Obispo where tomatoes typically don’t receive enough heat to thrive.

“Some of our tomatoes are more adapted to warmer weather, some cooler, but it also depends on how the buyer treats the plant,” advised student event coordinator Mason Duarte. “You could find microclimates within your garden that will allow the plant to grow better.”

Another benefit is that students use natural growing methods whenever possible. That includes feeding plants with a special blend of composts, as well as a type of vermicompost, or earthworm castings, produced by a Cal Poly professor. According to Duarte, it offers benefits well into the life of the plant.

“If the conditions are right, those microbes will grow and mature and continue to help the plant,” he said.

Finally, keep in mind that the plants were seeded, grafted and tended to by students with only minimal faculty oversight.

“We’re learning the business by doing. It’s replicating what may go on in the industry,” said Duarte.

Reach Rebecca Juretic at rajuretic@sbcglobal.net .

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