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Hurrying Up Tomatoes

“Homegrown tomatoes.
Homegrown tomatoes.
There’s nothin’ in the world like homegrown tomatoes. . . . .
The only two things that money can’t buy
Are true love and homegrown tomatoes!”

The words of the song are simple but true. Even the most casual gardener wants a couple of tomato plants somewhere in the yard.

The problem with growing tomatoes in Texas is a problem inherent in tomatoes. The plants refuse to set fruit once the temperature is routinely above ninety degrees. As we know, spring has barely sprung around here before the temperature gets that warm. The key to a good tomato crop, then, is to get the plants in early, get them growing quickly and get the fruit set before hot weather settles in.

The other tricky part is that while tomatoes won’t set fruit when it is too hot, they also don’t care for cold weather at all. The best solution I have found is to plant your tender young tomato plants inside a tomato cage covered with a light fabric designed as row cover. This material is feather-light so that sun, rain, and air can easily reach the growing plant, but it has insulating properties that keep out the harsh winds and cold night temperatures. It is sold under several names (Harvest Guard, Plant Shield, Remay, Row Cover, etc.), but it is all the same material. You wrap the tomato cages completely, including the top, and hold the material on with clothespins. You don’t have to worry about the plant getting too hot as you do when you use plastic to wrap the cages. You can leave the material on until the plants begin to bloom and need insects inside to pollinate the flowers.

Which is another benefit of the protective fabric: it keeps insects away from the young, tasty plants. You can use the same material to protect other tender young plants by draping it over rows and holding it down with rocks or dirt. Although the material is extremely light, it is also pretty tough. You can use it year after year if you take care of it.

Another way to assure a good supply of tomatoes is to plant more than one variety. Each type of tomato has its own characteristics, including the temperature at which it quits setting fruit. Generally, the smaller the fruit, the more heat tolerant. Cherry tomatoes, the small pear tomatoes and the wild tomato berries will generally continue to produce fruit throughout the hot weather. Last year my tiny little Texas Wild tomato berries started in the spring, went through the summer and were still producing when I got tired of the sprawling plant and pulled it up in October.

The old Porter tomatoes were developed with Texas summers in mind and will produce well for a long time. If you are interested in heirloom varieties, you might enjoy seeing how some of them perform. Yellow pear is one of the oldest and it performs like a champ year after year.

Once you select your tomato and get it tucked into the ground in a spot where it gets full sun, you have to encourage the plant to grow quickly. You do this the same way you encourage any baby to grow—you feed it! Naturally, you will have worked compost or manure into your soil and planted the seedling on a handful of rock phosphate. Now, to keep it going great guns, start a program of good nutrition. I like to use liquid plant food because it doesn’t involve my getting down and scratching around in the soil and it goes directly into the plant’s system. During the growing season, spray (or pour) a mixture of liquid fish emulsion and seaweed on the plants about every two weeks. This provides all the elements and trace elements the plants need to grow strong and healthy.

Strong, healthy plants are the best protection from insects and diseases. If you have good soil and good plants to start with, you should have a good crop. One of the biggest threats to tomatoes is the dread Tomato Hornworm. Looking like a creature from a Japanese horror movie circa 1956, the hornworms are big, fat, juicy and will rare up and face you down. But, relax, they only bite leaves. Pick them off your plants and squash them. If you have a big problem with caterpillars, spray or dust your plants with Bacillus Thuringensus, known as Bt. This is a biological control that harms only caterpillars. It won’t hurt any other creature in the garden, including you.

Also remember to keep your tomatoes watered if the rains don’t accommodate. Tomatoes don’t like drought. Then sit back and enjoy your homegrown tomatoes. They’re a lot easier to manage than true love.

Judy Barrett

 

 

 

 

 
homegrown, po box 913, georgetown, tx 78627, judy@homegrowntexas.com