Fig. 1 'Super Fantastic' tomato.
As the summer draws to an end and the summer vegetable garden begins to fade, I thought I’d look back. Everyone knows how to grow tomatoes but there are things each gardener learns through experience. For the record, here is a list of some of the useful lessons I learned.
Fig. 2 Almost-perfect fruit set.
Optimum temperatures for tomato fruit setting are between 70 and 85 degrees F.
Lesson 1. Plant early in the season – protect them if you need to.
As early as March, when other gardeners were still anticipating more frosty nights, we planted tomatoes. As a result, we enjoyed eating our own home-grown tomato salad early in the season. There is a small window in the temperature range when tomato blossoms set - and the optimum day temperature range being 70-85 degrees F. When night temperatures are cool (consistently below 55 degrees) or when day temperatures are hot (day temperatures of 95 degrees with night time temperatures of consistently above 75 degrees), fruit setting is jeopardized. Planting early prepares tomatoes for fruit setting prior to the occurrence of optimum temperatures during that season. The plant should be blooming by the time temperatures are right because this part of the country (Zone 9) heats up within a short period of time. There is nothing worse than having tomato plants that are beginning to bloom in the dead of summer. No amount of blossom spray will correct the effects of our area's intense summer temperature.
Consumption and utilization of produce is the ultimate measure of success in vegetable gardening.
This is especially important when planting determinate varieties which yield one heavy crop on a short period of time. Planting tomato successively at two-week- interval provides a progression of harvest rather than an overwhelming amount of harvest at one time. It prolongs harvest period and makes canning even more manageable.
Fig. 3 Tomato varieties in this basket: Cherokee Purple; Super Fantastic; Yellow Pear
The soil is like a plant nanny that holds food and water for the plant.
Lesson 3. Recondition old soil.Continuously planted soils get depleted over time. Between the amount plants take up and amount water carries through run off and percolation, available nutrients in the soil can rapidly diminish. This is a mistake I had overlooked this year. Just because, my garden produced vigorous plants in the past, I took the soil condition for granted - a critical part of the garden was neglected. Therefore, by the end of this year, I plan to cover the area with chicken manure and leaves that will fall from healthy deciduous trees. Then add a small amount of complete organic fertilizer. This recipe will encourage microorganisms and earthworms to do their job on boosting the condition of the soil.
Tomatoes stop being productive under extremely hot and dry conditions.
Lesson 4. Plant Tomatoes where they get late afternoon shade.
While tomatoes are a summer crop, they reach optimum production at relatively low temperatures. When temperatures are high, the stomata close and thus halt production (photosynthesis). In this part of the country (Zone 9) temperatures get in the high nineties up to over 100 degrees. It is a good idea to position the tomatoes in an area where they get a relief from the intensity of the summer's afternoon sun. Not only does the production rate is reduced, problems such as scalding, blossom-end-rot, and leaf curling become a problem. Some gardeners provide shade for the tomatoes during the late afternoon to reduce stress from high temperatures, water deficit and high radiation.
Fig. 4 Fresh from the garden.
Gardeners don't work alone, they have natural allies.
Lesson 5. Attract Blue Jays to the garden to eliminate problems with tomato/tobacco hornworm.
When it comes to finding the most devastating caterpillars in the tomato garden, blue jays are the best. It is good to encourage them to linger in the garden. Set out some large-seed bird food such as corn and peanuts in the garden and provide a source of water for them such as a simple bird bath. In my garden, the promise of fruits from the grapes, pears, apples and plums lure the jays as well as the mocking birds (both are great hunters of caterpillars) to stay around. It’s been years since we had problems with tobacco hornworm.