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Until You See Red-Fall Tomato Tricks


Anne Jaeger

Until You See Red-Fall Tomato Tricks

There is an epidemic this summer: a rash of tomato truancy. Yeah, the red ones are shirking their responsibility, showing up late or not at all. The final bell for summer is about to ring and we’ve still got more green than red on the vine. What the heck is going on? And what can we do about it this late in the game?

It’s time for dire action, tough love and some home grown tomato tips. Michael Stucky of Millennium Farms of Vancouver, Wash., has been growing tomatoes for 30 plus years, so he knows a thing or two about this fickle fruit. Stucky says the first thing we have to do is withhold. This method might put the kibosh on interpersonal communication in a relationship, but it does wonders with tomatoes.

Step 1: Stop watering. Withhold water completely; it’s cold turkey for plants in the ground. Tomatoes growing in containers will need a little water, but be stingy.

Step 2: Prune the plant. Cut off any leaf or branch that is covering the fruit. Take off every branch that doesn’t already have a tomato growing on it. Every single one. We don’t want the plant to flower any more. Nada. Leaving leaves saps the energy away from ripening what you’ve got and puts it into tomorrow (and tomorrow might never come!)

Step 3: Cut the top 6 inches off the tomato vine. Just hold your breath and cut. This tells the tomato (in no uncertain terms) to stop growing up vertically and put its effort into ripening what’s left. Stucky says this cuts to the heart of the mistakes most of us make with tomatoes late in the season “We’re afraid to cut tomato plants back significantly. We don’t want to admit summer is almost over.”

Step Four:  Spear a toothpick through the thickest part of the tomato vine. You’ll usually find the stem is widest about three to four inches up from the ground. Just run your toothpick sword clean through the plant and leave it there. Michael Stucky calls this “Graduate Level” tomato science. He employs this method when the end is near and it’s time to get seriously serious. This practice sheers two weeks off the ripening time. Our attempt at medieval torture, tricks the plant into believing it is dying.

But, back to the beginning. Why is there such a problem getting our tomatoes to ripen this summer anyway? Blame it on the weather. Stucky says our extremely hot weather (anything over 95 degrees) sends the tomato plants into a tailspin “we had too many hot days that pushed them into full blown survival mode.” In response, the tomato drops its flowers and stops fruit growth completely, which sets the plant back 10 to 14 days. Two full weeks we could have used right about now. Then, the cool nights complicated things even more. Did you know tomatoes actually grow at night? Stucky points out that the plant is storing energy by day and uses it at night. The sugar factory hits high gear on night shift. So if the soil is lower than 60 degrees it’s too cold to get any work done and the factory closes down for the night.

Yes, tomatoes had a hard summer. Too many days were too hot and too few nights held the heat. Now, it’s time to pull out all the stops, the countdown is on. My advice? Pull that toothpick out of your teeth and get busy.