Tomatoes planted now mean good eating in the fall

 

August 26, 2004

AMY GILNER

Victoria County Master Gardener

 

If you are like me, the thought of doing anything in the garden at this time of year seems crazy. But if you love tomatoes like I do, you know that it is time to get them planted no matter how hot it is outside. Nothing can compare with the taste of a home grown tomato. Most commercial products are picked early before the tomato is actually ripe and gassed to transform their color. They may look tasty, but they are not.

 

The tomato is probably the most popular vegetable to grow in the home garden, but it was not always the case. Hundreds of years ago the tomato was regarded as a poisonous crop. It was grown primarily for ornamentation rather than for food. Tomatoes were thought to cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and even cancer. These beliefs probably arise from the tomato's association with its poisonous relatives in the nightshade family. Other relatives of the tomato in the same family include the potato, eggplant, pepper and tobacco. The tomato vine also can emit an unpleasant odor when brushed and leave a yellow residue on anything it touches.

 

It is believed that the Italians were the first tomato lovers and grew tomatoes for food in the 1500s. Several hundred years later Europeans brought the plant back to the New World and established it in America. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson became one of the first tomato growers in the United States, and in the early 1800s the tomato became popular in Louisiana where it was used in Creole cuisine. Nevertheless, the tomato did not appear to have much importance in America until the late 1800s when efforts to improve the tomato began.

 

It is not always easy to grow tomatoes in Texas, particularly in the Golden Crescent at this time of year. Day and night temperatures are high, while rainfall may be heavy, but episodic. Nevertheless, a wonderful crop of tomatoes can be grown at this time of year if one chooses the correct varieties and pays attention to nutrition and water requirements.

 

Some of the best tomatoes that can withstand the heat and humidity in South Central Texas are Celebrity, Heatwave II, Merced, Patio, Roma, cherry and grape. A recent addition to the Texas Superstar list of plants is the tomato 444, which has done quite well this year and is an excellent variety to try. Compared with the Celebrity, the 444 plant produces slightly larger fruit and a higher yield.

 

There are two basic types of tomato plants, determinate and indeterminate. A determinate vine is bushy and more compact; growing from 3 to 5 feet tall or more and grows well supported in a cage. A determinate tomato vine's terminal buds that form on the tips of the main branches eventually set fruit, which stops the stem growth. Determinate varieties are great for a small garden or even in pots. Determinate varieties also tend to put on a heavy crop all at one time, which might be a better choice for fall. Indeterminate plants are not stopped in their growth by terminal fruit setting and they grow more like a vine. An indeterminate plant will keep growing new stems and leaves until the first frost. They also produce flowers and fruits throughout the season, but the yield is often much smaller than a determinate variety. Indeterminate plants grow very tall and will need to be supported either by staking and/or tall cages. The Texas Tomato Cage, or one made similar to it, provides perfect tomato plant support. You may find them on the Web at http://www.texastomatocage.com/ or by calling 1-877-983-4646.

 

As a rule, one needs to plant early enough to allow time for vegetable production before the first freeze. Tomatoes grown from seed should be planted by July 10 so that the seedlings will be ready to transplant by Aug. 10. Transplants should be set out 14 to 16 weeks before the first killing frost of the season. Although this date will vary from season to season, tomato plants should be in the ground no later than the end of August. If you are going to grow your tomatoes from plants, buy the plants in early August and transplant them immediately.

 

To help reduce the onset of disease as well as insect attacks, it is recommended that your fall tomato plants not be planted in the same bed in which you grew your spring tomatoes. Tomatoes should also not be planted where you have grown eggplant, peppers, or potatoes the previous season. Additional plants to avoid rotation with are carrots, okra and squash. Plants that are good to rotate tomatoes with are grass-like crops such as corn, onions or garlic. If you do not have much space this may seem like a difficult task, but do the best you can.

 

Fall tomatoes should be planted in the evening and watered in well. If you fertilized your garden well in the spring it should not be necessary to add additional fertilizer. On the other hand, if your soil is of poor quality, then a light cover of compost as a side dressing will add additional vigor to the growing medium. Young plants should be shaded from the rays of the hot sun until they are acclimated to their environment. They should be watered well until they are established, which takes about one to two weeks. Try not to let your plants wilt during this time because this will weaken the plants and can affect plant growth, and disease and insect resistance.

 

If you follow these few rules you are likely to end up with a wonderful supply of delicious tomatoes. Do not forget that tomatoes must ripen on their vines; that they should be eaten immediately after picking, and that they must not be refrigerated. The only thing more satisfying than growing tomatoes is eating them.

 

Eating from the garden brings to mind the Victoria County Master Gardener fall symposium and plant sale on Saturday, Sept. 18 near Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) at the Victoria Regional Airport. One of the training sessions will be conducted by Toscana Bistro's Chef Andrew Sparkman who will describe and illustrate cooking from the garden with various herb pasta selections. Look for more information in this column, in area businesses and other media markets, or call the Extension Office at 361-575-4581 for more information.

 

Finally, I want to leave you with my favorite recipe for cherry tomatoes.

 

Baked Cherry Tomatoes

 

Serves 4-6

 

1 quart cherry tomatoes (the sweeter, the better)

 

A handful of garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

 

2 tablespoons snipped chives

 

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

 

Juice of 1 lemon

 

Freshly ground black pepper

 

Kosher salt

 

Place the tomatoes in a baking dish, add the garlic and chives, and toss. Pour the olive oil over the tomatoes, followed by the lemon juice. Toss again, season with several turns of black pepper, and place in a 350-degree oven for 20-30 minutes, until the tomatoes have burst open and the garlic is tender. Remove from the oven and season with kosher salt to taste. Serve hot, warm or chilled as a side dish.

 

I hope you like this recipe as much as I do. If you have a lot of cherry tomatoes it is a good way to use them. Enjoy!