TDP Sunday, March 22,2009
Love Apples, the lovely tasty tomato:

It's time to start putting in your summer vegetable gardens. Years ago I used to plant a huge garden each year and shared it with my mother who did the canning. It was a good partnership, and we both did what we liked. For me it was gardening, and for her it was putting up food. Now I don't do so much but I still like to plant my favorite veggies: tomatoes, sweet corn, a few hills of cucumbers, a few pepper plants and some eggplant. I've had to learn how to garden all over again since I was transplanted in Texas seven years ago.

We have two short growing seasons in Texas - Spring and Fall. There's not much that will stand up to the heat of our summers, except for eggplant, or okra. These hardy vegetables will go and go like the Energizing Bunny, while everything else just sits there and pants waiting for fall before they will produce anything again. Mid-summer you can plant many vegetables again to come to fruition in the fall. Tomatoes, do especially well this way, and you'll bypass watering unfruitful plants all summer for no reason. Everyone seems to have a few tomato plants in their backyard, for you can't get that great sun- warmed tomato taste from the supermarket. I have found tomatoes tricky for our hot climate. Many tomato varieties won't set fruit when the night temperatures are over 72 degrees F, and that lasts for a couple of months in Texas! To get tomatoes to fruit you must learn which ones will set fruit at which night temperatures when they are blooming.

The best general guide is the size. The really big ones like Beefsteak, or the ones developed in cooler climates like Russian Crimean will be less likely to make fruit when the nights are hot. If the tomato varieties are the plum or cherry varieties, or were developed where summers are hot, like the Cherokee, these will do better in Texas summers. The ones you can always count on to set fruit during the hot summer are the cherry tomatoes or the pasta kind, like the Roma. I find it interesting that tomatoes are so picky about the heat because they are a tropical native American plant. According to Wikipedia, they were first called love apples by the Europeans because they are related botanically to the mandrake with which they were familiar. Tomatoes were still relatively uncommon to American Colonists in 1809 when Thomas Jefferson noted that he planted this unfamiliar vegetable. He actually got his seeds from France, although tomatoes had been commonly grown for eating in Spain since the 1600s!

It was an Englishman, John Gerard, who wrote a book on herbal use in 1597 that said the tomato was poisonous because it was related to the nightshade plant, (and it is, and potato leaves are poisonous, although the potato tubers are safe as we all know). The book was widely read, and It took the British and American colonists a long time to accept the rhizomes as safe, while the Spanish were happily eating them for many years. When Thomas Jefferson ate some tomatoes in Paris and survived, he sent some seeds back home to grow his own!

To lessen the effect of the heat, it won't help to grow them in the shade. They won't grow well there either, and must have at least seven hours of full sun, and more is better. Tomatoes like cool roots, and lots of water. When you fertilize, be careful about adding too much nitrogen, or the plant will have lots of vines, but little fruit. Plant them in good top soil, use lots of mulch under the vines, and either stake them up or plant them in cages to keep the vines off the ground. This will help prevent blossom rot, where the bottom end of the tomato gets a fungus where it touches the ground.

You can pull the lower branches off and plant them half-way up their stems. The stems will develop deeper roots and need less watering this way. A major disease of tomatoes are nematodes that infect the roots, and Fusarium wilt. The best way to avoid these is to not plant them in the same place year after year, and after the season is over collect up the dead vines and dispose of them. Don't put them in your mulch pile. It is now popular to plant them like hanging baskets and let the vines hang down so the tomatoes are easy to pick. That works fine, except make sure that your baskets hold a lot of dirt, or our hot dry winds will quickly dry them out, and you'll have to water them several times a day. Tomatoes can make a tremendous large vine that has to stay hydrated. Five gallon buckets with holes punched in them for drainage work pretty well.

Tomatoes will do very well in the fall garden, so if you don't get yours out in the spring, you can plant them mid June through July and they will fruit as soon as the nights get cooler. I've gotten so that I don't even bother with tomatoes in the spring, except for a few Roma and cherry tomatoes varieties, because my fall tomatoes just out produce them. My heirloom tomatoes do best when planted mid-summer so that they will fruit in the fall. It takes a hard frost to kill them, so they make a lot of fruit before the 1st big frost. The night before a big frost is predicted, I pick all the fruit including the green tomatoes and most of the little ones. I don't wash these, but sort them by how green they are into buckets which I keep in a cool bright room at about 60 F. They will all gradually ripen, and very few will rot. I've had home ripened tomatoes this way up to Christmas for the past two years, and they will still have that great garden taste. If you follow these methods of growing tomatoes, you'll have the most success. Working with nature is best, not against it.