Robin Sonsteby uses greenhouse experience in garden
By Sandy Bond
Many of us tomato lovers have either planted tomato plants in the garden or have found it impossible to get coordinates straight with Mother Nature. We may have simply resigned ourselves to a summer with store-bought tomatoes, sometimes as flavorful and appealing as grandma’s bowl of plastic fruit from the 1950s.
But never fear.
“It is not too late to plant tomatoes this year,” Robin Sonsteby said. “You have until the first of July. Many of your favorite tomatoes such as Early Girl, Sweet 100s – love those – and Celebrity and cherry tomatoes mature in 55 to 70 days; so there’s time. And some of your favorite later maturing varieties such as Big Boy, Better Boy, and Beefsteak, adapt very well to container gardening.”
By planting them in containers you can easily move them indoors when a cold spell threatens early in the season, she said, and outdoors during the warm fall days and indoors at night, thus extending the growing season.
“If they get too tall, they can be staked right in their container,” she said.
Robin was once employed by Dan and Jerry’s Greenhouse, one of the biggest in the area.
“There are simply too many retailers to name,” she said, “but if you bought your garden stock at the new Runnings store in Mobridge, you probably purchased some of Dan and Jerry’s plants.”
They specialize in trees and shrubs, perennials and annuals, vegetables and more recently, an abundance of herbs, she said, which are becoming very popular.
“The vegetables and herbs are grown chemical-free,” she said.
Working her way from the ground up, from grower to transporter, she became manager of the main greenhouse and five gardens within the 17 years she was with the company. She has a knowledge of what works.
Three years ago, Robin and husband Craig made the decision to move from Annandale, Minn., leaving behind a life of milking cows for raising and training Red and White Irish Setters and Viszla hunting dogs, and raising Boar goats, and Bobwhite quail on the former Oscar Jr. and Carol Fielder farm. Her knowledge of those years in the growing business are proving invaluable to their country living in South Dakota.
“I, myself, like to make a lot of salsa,” she said. “Roma tomatoes and some of the yellow varieties, I found, make great salsa.”
Through trial and error she has discovered that, although meaty tomatoes make the best salsa, removing the center with its seeds, is key.
“We try to use natural fertilizer like goat manure,” she said. “The manure from ruminants, like goats and cattle, are always a good choice, as they are less acidic, particularly if aged, and weed seeds are less likely to survive.”
Some that should never be used, she said, are horse and chicken manure, unless they are composted; they’re just too high in nitrates and will burn the plants.
Robin uses a variety of commercial fertilizers, as well, ascertaining that it is specifically designed for the plants.
“Fertilizer for roses is not going to have desirous results on tomatoes,” she said, “it’s just the wrong ratio of nutrients; but peppers and eggplant do well with the same chemical fertilizer as tomatoes.”
A spray called “Enz Rot,” available through various on-line suppliers, she has discovered, is worth considering if your tomatoes had a black rot last year.
“It’s difficult when space is limited, but try to rotate your crops,” she said. “If you grow the same crop year after year in the same spot, the nutrients will be sapped from that soil and your plants will become less resident to certain diseases.”
Some things that are old are new again.
“The Heirloom tomatoes, that your grandparents may have grown are new and different and always fun,” she said, “and I absolutely love the zebra-colored ones for salsas. The Chocolate Cherry is just a blast and tasty, too.”
The family tends to enjoy hot peppers.
“And the hot peppers seem to be more resistant to end rot,” she said.
Their day begins with the “crack of dawn” with formal chores taking four to five hours, including tending an immense garden, feeding and cleaning up after a herd of 60 goats, a gaggle of chickens, and 20 or so dogs and puppies.
There are long trips to the Minneapolis airport to airfreight puppies all over the country, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is bliss,” she said.