Every year by late fall, many gardeners have eaten all the frozen or canned tomatoes intended for enjoyment all winter. Impatiently, we are forced to wait until summer, when we can start harvesting the next crop of early tomatoes. Dinner just isn’t the same without the intoxicating perfume of a salad topped with home-grown Brandywines. Pasta is a bit dull when missing the pungent aroma of heirloom paste varieties cooked down to a delicious sauce. The more technical among us will yearn for home-dried tomatoes with olive oil on a sandwich. And, of course, garden-fed kids notice the lack of sweet cherry tomatoes in their meals.
Feeling hungry now? Check out our recipe this month for Eggplant, Tomato, and Lentil Stew!
August is here, and your tomato harvest should be in full swing; if it isn’t then this post should help you figure out what went wrong and to start thinking about next year!
Tip #1 Grow a combination of early and late varieties. This way, you can harvest some early ones, while the late ones are still ripening. Late, indeterminate varieties tend to have the best flavor and largest yields.
As implied above, there are several general groups including cherry tomatoes, standard tomatoes, and paste or drying tomatoes. Standard and paste tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate means these varieties grow bushier plants and set fruit all at once, while indeterminate means the variety continuously grows large plants and sets fruit over a long season. Supermarket tomatoes tend to be determinate varieties. Even still, grown at home they will taste much better, partially because tomatoes are picked green in industrial settings, shipped over many miles, and ripened in containers using ethylene gas. Varieties can also be grouped into ‘early’ (will set fruit quickly and can deal with cooler temperatures) or ‘late’ (needs a longer warmer growing season to produce well).
Buying seed to grow rare and heirloom varieties can be expensive, so we recommend buying open-pollinated seeds that you can save from your fresh tomatoes and dry for next year’s crop. Bountiful Gardens sells a wide array: Orange King (determinate), Brandywine (indeterminate), Amish (paste), Chadwick’s (cherry), and Stupice (extra early; produces well even in drought or cool conditions).
Tip #2 Choose a warm, sunny location to plant your tomatoes with a wind block. Mulching can help keep the soil warm during the night but may invite insect pests (slugs will eat tomatoes resting on the ground).
Here in California, we have an extremely long growing season, so everyone should be able to achieve delicious tomatoes… right? Well, along the coast, plants can encounter strong sea breezes and cool nights. Tomatoes encounter problems if nighttime temperatures drop below 55 F. For instance, plant growth will slow, and flowers will not successfully set fruit.
Tip #3 Amend the soil using compost with oak leaves (high in calcium) or bone meal (high in both).
Tomatoes are heavy feeders and enjoy rich soil. However, if they are given too much nitrogen they will produce more leaves and less fruit. They require more phosphorus and calcium than other nutrients.
Tip #4 Do not plant crops in the nightshade family in the same bed more than once every three seasons. Remove plants infected with late blight before the blight can spread to others.
The nightshade, or Solanaceae, family includes tomatoes, along with potatoes, peppers, and eggplant. So these plants share many of the same pests and diseases and should not be planted in the same bed time after time. Verticillium wilt is a common disease, encouraged by cool temperatures, and will build up in the soil. It causes mature leaves to wilt and then develop yellow and brown V-shaped patterns at the edges. Late blight, one cause of the Irish famine in the 1800s, is a fungal like organism, and is becoming ubiquitous in the Bay Area. The disease currently cannot spread in the soil, and must drift from plant to plant on the wind. So, changing the crop location between seasons by a large distance, or by skipping a full season of nightshades should break the annual cycle of late blight.
Tip #5 After watering deeply, determine how many days it takes for your tomato plants to look thirsty. From then on, water deeply one day less than that number of days (if it took 4 days, then water deeply every 3).
Since common diseases are helped by low temperatures and moisture, try to water tomatoes early in the morning and low to the ground to avoid having water sit on the leaves all night long. Over-watering will facilitate disease and can result in watery fruit. Under-watering will also cause physiological problems such as blossom drop, and small fruit. Since the plant’s roots can reach down 4-5 ft, deep watering is better than constant spot watering.
Tip #6 Keeping some stem and the cap on your picked tomatoes will allow them to last longer on your shelf. (And, remember, refrigerating them reduces their flavor!)
The most applicable advice to this month is how to pick your bounty! When picking tomatoes, break the stem about an inch above the fruit where a joint is present. Bend the joint the wrong direction, and the tomato should come off easily if it is ripe. Tomatoes that have to be picked early (e.g., due to disease) can be ripened by pulling and hanging upside-down the whole plant, or by wrapping individual fruit in newspaper (to hold the natural ethylene gas around the fruit).
We hope you are having a bountiful summer harvest. But, if your yields are lacking, come to Common Ground during our Wednesday volunteering session and try some of our ripe heirloom tomatoes. We have Green Zebras and Costolutos. Right now, We’re off to make a salad out of them…