Summertime tips to get you to your first homegrown tomatoes
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Seeing your first homegrown tomato ripen on the vine is a big deal. You’ll probably call everyone in your family and some of the neighbors over to witness your success. You worked hard. This is exciting stuff.
You’ve probably had visions of fresh, spontaneous Caprese salads, salsa and sharing with your friends and you’re getting close to the finish line. But sometimes the homestretch can be the hardest, especially when we’re anxious. Here are some tips to help you get to the good stuff:
Think warmth, not light to ripen your tomatoes
In fact, too much direct sunlight can bring on problems like sunscald and fruit cracks. You don’t need to move containers to the sunny spot on the porch or the windowsill, they’ll ripen as long as temperatures hover at about 65 degrees or higher.
And if temperatures climb to the high 80s, you’d be best to harvest tomatoes that turn pink during the heat wave. Tomatoes stop producing the red color at extreme temps. You can ripen all the way on your countertops or even in a dark cupboard.
Watering is really important
Your plants will need 1 to 1 ½ inches of water per week to stay healthy and produce fruit. This usually comes out to watering about two to three times a week in the summer.
You can always place a tin can or water gauge near your plants to get a feel for how much water they’re getting naturally and how much your watering is supplying. You want to water deeply to benefit the roots and help them conserve moisture.
Do what you can to save it
Your tomatoes will lose less moisture to evaporation with a 2-3 inch layer of mulch, straw or pine needles. The layer will buffer your soil from the hot summer sun and keep your plants’ roots cool.
Don’t try to catch up
We’re human and we go on vacations and sometimes we forget to water our tomatoes. It happens. But try your best to avoid letting your plants completely dry out between watering. Our inclination after a period of drought is to water generously and this can actually cause a lot of problems like blossom end rot and cracks in the fruit when the fruit expands again suddenly.
Best to keep your soil consistently moist. If that takes a few bucks for the neighbor girl to water your garden or containers while you’re gone, we’d call that a good investment.
Skip the leaves
This depends on how you water, but it’s worth mentioning. If it’s possible to water at the base of your plants, without getting water on the leaves, this is your best bet. Wet leaves can be a recipe for disease, especially at night, so if you can avoid them, do! The alternative if you’re using a sprinkler? Water in the morning so the leaves have a chance to dry during the day.
Don’t forget to feed them
We like to compare notes with plant people like the folks in the Department of Horticulture at Purdue University, especially about growing and feeding tomatoes in our area. We agree that organic fertilizers like Organic Plant Magic and Age Old Bloom help see the plants through their growing season and we recommend the following feeding schedule, jump in where you can:
- 1-2 weeks after the first fruit sets
- 2 weeks after picking your first ripe fruit (hooray!)
- 6 weeks after picking your first ripe fruit
Just follow directions on the package for how much to use.
What to do if something’s wrong
Here’s a quick triage guide for some common problems:
- Dry, black, leathery scar on blossom-end of fruit. This is called Blossom-end Rot and it’s usually caused by extremes in soil moisture (from drought to an abundance of water). Can be especially serious during hot dry spells. Mulching and consistent watering will help keep conserve moisture and keep soil consistently moist.
- Yellow or white patch on sun-facing side of fruit that may blister and dry into a paper-like surface. You’ve got a case of Sunscald. The best way to avoid this is to cage your tomatoes when planting and not to overprune them. You want there to be some foliage cover from hot afternoon sun.
- Vertical or concentric cracks. The best way to avoid Fruit Cracks is to plant your tomatoes in areas that don’t receive full sun or hot afternoon sun. If your tomatoes are in containers, move them to a shadier spot.
- Irregular, whitish spots just under the skin. Cloudy Spots come from stinky bugs feeding on your fruit. Control the Stink Bugs and your problem goes away.
- Spots on leaves or fruit. Can be a variety of diseases including Early Blight and Leaf Spot. The best strategy is to choose cultivars that are disease resistant. But that doesn’t help you now. Check with the garden center for fungicides that can help control the spread of the disease.
- Yellowing of the lower leaves. This can be a variety of wilt diseases, including Fusarium, Verticillium and Walnut Wilt. Again, disease resistant varieties will help next spring, but for now, check into fungicides to control the spread.
- Eaten foliage and fruit. You may have Hornworms. These large, 4-inch worms have a horn, as you’d expect. And they’re big enough to handpick them off your plants. The other potential culprit if you see holes in the buds or fruit? Fruitworms.
- Tiny holes or curly trails in the leaves. Flea Beetles are tiny and black and will eat tiny holes in the foliage. Leaf Miners will leave white, curly trails in the leaves. There are many insecticides for these insects and others like Spider Mites and Stink Bugs, just ask at the garden center.
If you’re not sure how to identify the problem, take a picture and/or bring in a leaf or fruit sample to the garden center and we can help.
Knowing when to pick them
The unanimous answer? When they’re red! But if the temperatures are in the 80s and/or you’re losing ripe red tomatoes to blossom end rot or the birds, go ahead and pick them at the first signs of pink.
Something you might not know is that heirloom tomatoes actually ripen before they turn their final color. Pick them before they look completely ripe. Same for cherry tomatoes that can crack if left on the vine too long. Pick them ahead of their ultimate ripeness.
Knowing how to pick them
Again, this may be kind of obvious, but let’s cover all of our bases. Grasp the tomato firmly but gently and twist until it snaps from the plant. You can also cut them off with a knife or clippers. Collect them in a basket, bucket or we love to hear about people who still tuck them in their garden aprons or smocks.
Tomatoes rot quickly and birds and insects can be quicker than we are at spotting the ripe ones. We like to check our garden or containers at the same time each day, as part of our daily routine so we don’t miss any. What a great way to begin a day, right?
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We’d love to see your tomatoes as they grow. Post your first ripe tomato to our Facebook page or share your favorite tomato recipe. We live for this stuff.