I came in from working in the garden the other day and declared to anyone that would listen that my vegetable garden was looking AWESOME, and my dear husband hardly looked up from his work as he replied, “EVERYBODY’S vegetable garden is looking awesome this spring”. True enough, the rain and mild temperatures have been just what we needed here in Central Texas to shake off the drought doldrums, but I can still revel in the beauty and bounty of my own little piece of earth. It is my sincere hope that you are experiencing the same success. One reason our vegetable gardens are so splendid is because tomato time is finally here, and for tomato lovers, especially those who try to eat local and in season, it has been a long and mostly tomato-less winter.
Hopefully by now your tomatoes are growing strong and you may have already savored that first juicy bite of your home-grown and sun-ripened treats. But just when tomatoes are in the home stretch it seems a plethora of plague and pestilence begin a full assault, and that is when our plants will benefit from a steady diet of attention, inspection and TLC.
As we move toward summer make sure your plants receive at least 1½” of water each week, preferably from drip or soaker irrigation that places water at the root zone and avoids wetting the leaves. A 2-4 inch layer of mulch is essential to moderate soil temperature, to keep water from splashing soil onto the leaves (fungal spores are often lurking in the soil underneath plants), and to conserve moisture in the soil. Dried leaves or grass, alfalfa hay, pine straw, or even partially decomposed compost are suitable mulches. Side-dress your plants with fertilizer as soon as the first fruit set, and then continue to dole out small servings of fertilizer every 4 weeks. One way to side-dress a tomato plant is to pull the mulch back and apply 2-3 tablespoons of fertilizer (feather meal, blood meal, ammonium sulfate or other packaged fertilizer) around the diameter of each tomato plant, scratch it into the soil, water lightly and then replace the mulch. Some gardeners prefer to spray their tomato foliage with a water soluble fertilizer every week (using a product like Miracle Grow or liquid fish emulsion) and that seems to work well, but remember that plants are not designed to take in nutrients from their leaves, so it’s important to also get fertilizer into the root zone. A hybrid approach may be best – side-dressing at the root zone every 4 weeks and applying a foliar spray every 7-10 days.
Tomatoes generally stop setting fruit when the daytime temperature hits 90º and nighttime temps reach the mid 70s, though cherry varieties may often produce through the heat. If your tomato plants are healthy and you can keep them that way you might be able to carry them through the summer for a fall crop. If you would rather start with fresh tomato plants for the fall garden most local nurseries will have transplants available in late summer or you can grow your own. It takes 6-8 weeks to grow a good size tomato transplant so plant those little tomato seeds in early June so you’ll have decent size transplants by late July or early August.
Inspect your tomatoes every few days for signs of insect damage or disease, and as the plants grow gently guide the stems so they stay within the cage. Eventually those stems will be laden with fruit and they will need the support that the cage provides. Below is a rundown of some of the most common problems associated with tomato cultivation:
Leaf-footed Bugs: these grayish brown bugs with the flattened hind legs are a common pest of tomatoes. They have what entomologists call “piercing-sucking” mouthparts, and that is exactly what they do to tomatoes. They pierce the skin, inject an enzyme to dissolve the juices, and then suck the juice out, leaving small, hard, white spots or lesions on the surface of the tomato.
Their eggs are laid in long chains along the stems or leaf midrib; after hatching the nymphs, with their orange bodies and black legs, congregate together making them easy to spot. Do not be deceived – the nymphs may not look like adult leaf-footed bugs, but they will in approximately 30 days after morphing through five instar stages.
These soft-bodied orange nymphs cannot fly, they can only scatter, so this is the preferred stage to treat them with insecticide, squish them or drop them into a bucket of soapy water. Also destroy any egg cases that you find. Spinosad and insecticidal soap may be effective against the nymphs, but nothing seems to bother the adults – they just glare at you and fly away. Handpicking is the best way to get the adults, but beware – they are a type of stink bug and when you squish them it is not pleasant.
Early Blight: Alternaria solani, a common fungal disease that attacks tomatoes, especially during rainy periods. Foliage starts to yellow at the base of the plant and then gradually moves upward. Ideally we should prevent this disease by providing adequate spacing and air circulation, mulching below the plants and avoiding overhead watering that wets the leaves.
Once the disease takes hold it can be treated with an approved fungicide; if early blight is a perennial problem it’s best to start treatment early in the season, to prevent spreading of the disease. Serenade and neem oil are organic controls and Daconil (active ingredient chlorothalonil) is a conventional fungicide that is effective in combating early blight. Using these products on an alternating schedule may give better results. Even though Daconil is not organic, it requires approximately ½ teaspoon per quart of water and the solution can be judiciously directed at foliage, not fruit.
Spider Mites: a nuisance in most spring and summer gardens, this tiny pest inhabits and feeds on the underside of leaves, causing a stippled effect on the surface of the leaf. If left untreated spider mites can quickly destroy a crop. It is amazing how many teeny tiny mites can be on the back of a leaf, they are just near impossible to see without magnification. Their numbers usually increase in hot and dry conditions, but I am already seeing huge numbers of spider mites on my tomatoes even though we’ve had more rain than usual this spring and the temperatures have been mild.
Spider mites are difficult to control, but my first line of defense is to wash the mites off using a strong spray of water directed at the underside of the leaves every 3-5 days. My favorite tool for this purpose is the Mite-Y-Fine Sprayer™ – a tool that my engineer brother built for me. It is a long-handled tool with a high pressure nozzle that allows me to wash mites off of leaves efficiently and without stooping – it’s such a useful tool I told my brother he should make more and sell them – and he is! They are made of quality materials, hand built by him, his wife and their son. I use mine almost every week during the spring and summer growing season. See www.miteyfine.com for more information.
Insecticidal soap, neem oil and wettable sulfur are labeled as miticides and can be sprayed on leaves to help control mites. Many gardeners swear by a weekly seaweed spray to keep them at bay though I prefer to use the Mite-Y-Fine because I like to eat tomatoes off the vine while standing in the garden, and I’d rather not spray them with anything.
Tomato Hornworm: prevention is the best control here. A single tomato hornworm can defoliate a tomato plant in short order if left unchecked, so it’s best to scout the plants for signs of damage (large chunks of missing leaves and moist, dark green worm poop on the soil or in the branches. These large caterpillars usually show up as an army of one, rarely do I see more than two on a plant. When there’s only one or two it’s easy to pull them off and toss them into your neighbor’s yard, or do as one lady told me – she just goes after them with a pair of scissors (ugh).
Nematodes: if your healthy tomato plant begins to gradually decline, turning yellow, drooping, losing vigor and/or wilting without reviving by the next morning then you may have nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic worms that get into the roots and form small galls or knots in the root, blocking the uptake of water and nutrients and causing the plant to gradually decline. Once a plant has nematodes you might as well pull it up as there is no treatment and leaving it in the ground will only allow the nematodes to increase in numbers. When pulling an infected plant be careful not to fling nematode-infested soil to other parts of the garden.
Below are two of my family’s favorite recipes for utilizing the season’s tomato harvest:
4 fresh tomatoes, chopped (peeled and seeded if desired, but I usually don’t)
2-3 jalapenos, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 cup cilantro
1-2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cumin
2-4 Tbsp lime juice
1/2 tsp sugar
Chop the onion, jalapenos, garlic and one tomato in a blender or food processor. Then add the seasonings and the remaining tomatoes, and blend till it seems right. This is personal taste. You can leave it chunky but I usually blend out most of the chunks. Then I taste and usually end up adding more tomatoes, lime juice and sometimes another jalapeno. I let it sit a bit and then go back and taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. It gets a little redder and a little spicier as it sits.
** You do not have to use a blender/food processor. If you prefer, finely chop the first five ingredients by hand, then stir in the seasonings and adjust to your taste.
Roasting tomatoes brings out an amazing, concentrated flavor – they can be used in sauces, pasta, sandwiches or simply as a savory snack. They don’t last long around my house, but they can be stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks or frozen for up to three months without compromising the flavor. ‘Juliet’ tomatoes and small roma varieties are perfect for this recipe.
Wash, dry and slice tomatoes in half vertically. Remove seeds and juice (don’t worry about removing every single seed, you just want to scoop out most of the wet pulp). Arrange on a foil-lined pan, cut side up. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in a 325º oven for 1½ -2 hours. Watch carefully to be sure they don’t burn and adjust temperature or time, depending on size of tomatoes.