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Talking Tomatoes

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By mercedesfromtheeighties (Capay heirloom tomatoes at Slow Food Nation) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons By mercedesfromtheeighties (Capay heirloom tomatoes at Slow Food Nation) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nancy says with precautions, it's time to get growing!

On a steamy summer night growing up in Minnesota, we would open the windows to search for a light breeze. My Mother used to say “You can just hear those tomatoes growin’!” What she meant is those hot August nights are what really helps ripen tomatoes so easily in other parts of the nation. But there are a few tricks you can use in the North Country to help coax those lovely green orbs to red before the first frost. 

1. Site and Plant Selection—You don’t need a big garden for a couple of tomatoes, a five gallon pickle bucket drilled for drain holes will hold one plant nicely. Sometimes, these “movable gardens” are a plus, as you can find a really hot spot that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun and even move them under cover in fall when the frost returns at night. Choose plants that list fruit that will ripen in 60 to 80 days, especially if you are a beginner! There are so many more flavorful and earlier tomatoes than the old genetically modified Early Girl. Explore old Heirlooms like Siberia, Stupice, German Johnson, Amish Paste and more. Be adventuresome, take notes, ask questions and be rewarded!

2. Soil, Water, Fertilizer—A good foundation: Make sure you have good drainage, really good soil and proper fertilizer for tomatoes. Tomatoes require water on a consistent basis, especially if you are going to have them in a bucket. Drought and stress is one of the factors that bring blossom end rot to tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and squash. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and are prone to blossom end rot when the plants lack calcium, water and other nutrients to support the fruit. There is nothing more discouraging than finally getting to August, seeing the rubies grow to a decent size and then suddenly... ugh, a large black sunken spot begins to form on the bottom of the tomato fruit. The bad news is that by August, there is little to be done to turn this disease around and you have lost another crop. The good news is that when you plant now and you start with the right fertilizers in the soil and continue with a regular water and feeding schedule, you should eliminate the ugly black spots from ruining all your work! 

Just as we are reading more labels at the grocery store, look at your labels of fertilizers for your garden. According to law, all fertilizers must list their “Guaranteed Analysis” of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium and any other minerals and nutrients they claim to include on the label. These fertilizers are tested by the state of Idaho regularly to ensure the public is getting what they pay for. I have had reputable companies have a bad “batch” not live up to their claims by just a small percentage point and have to be pulled off the sale shelves. 

For tomatoes, look to a fertilizer with higher middle number (Phosphorus) such as 5-7-3 and Calcium listed at 4 percent or more to prevent the blossom end rot. A granular organic should be used not only in the soil as you plant but again, top dressed in once a month. 

3. Planting & Staking—Most Tomatoes need a strong cage, trellis or even a cattle panel to be coaxed through as they grow tall. This will allow you to tie up branches so the sun can reach the fruits when they get big! Velcro ties are the strongest yet softest on the plant tissues I have found… and when you are careful, you can reuse them. Plant tomato starts deep. Remove the bottom leaves and dig a 1 foot hole, fertilize and stake. The plant roots out from that buried stem and develops into a stronger plant on its own. Determinate (bushier) tomatoes are the only tomatoes that will not require staking.

4. Weeding—Do not cultivate deeply or disturb the top roots when weeding or feeding. Tomatoes have very tiny root hairs that have to do a lot of work in a short amount of time.

5. Heating—Red Plastic Mulch is used to both trap the heat in the soil each night around fruiting vegetables and also ripen them 20 percent faster because the light it reflects has a lower red to far-red ratio than sunlight. Common black plastic only aids in the plant’s warmth and growth. It is easiest if you put this down first and then slit holes into it when planting. 

Floating Row Cover/Frost Cloth is a lightweight white blanket that can save your crop from early frosts, giving a 3- to 5-degree buffer from frost settling on your plant.

Greenhouse plastic can be wrapped around single plants or you can create a small tunnel over your row of tomatoes to protect and continue the ripening process well into October! 

Cheers to Good Growing!

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Author info

Nancy Hastings Nancy Hastings grew up on a 300+ acre farm and is co-owner of All Seasons Garden and Floral in Sandpoint, She and her husband John have been cultivating community gardens and growing for 15 years in North Idaho. You can reach them with garden questions or sign up for classes atllseasonsgardenandfloral(at)gmail.com.

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gardening, tomatoes, vegetable gardens

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