waiting, waiting (for a ripe tomato)

greentomato1WELCOME TO TOMATO WEEK, A CELEBRATION OF (GREEN?) TOMATOES. Deb at the Dinner Tonight blog and I are glad to have you with us for Week 4 of our ongoing food festivals, but not as glad as I would be (dare I say?) to see a red tomato show up. Yes, I’m  still waiting for a ripe fruit.  Good thing I’ve been gardening long enough to cultivate extraordinary patience. OK, I’m done complaining; let’s get on with the event.

I’m hoping some of my 2008 progeny will start turning red, but if not, I have a stash of green-tomato recipes. (For now I’ll hold onto them, as it’s not yet time to give up…look for them in a few weeks here, and enjoy the Oven-Roasted Tomato idea down at the bottom of this post meantime.)

But really, I marvel each summer-into-fall when I stock my freezer with the harvest turned to many quarts of sauce: How did I even get one ripe fruit, considering what could have happened?

No fruit. Only green fruit. Fruit with spots. Fruit with black bottoms. Fruit with cracks. Fruit eaten by marauders of every taxonomic order.

Tomato leaves spotted. Or dropping off. Or eaten and just plain gone (hornworms!).

Growing tomatoes has its challenges.

We gardeners can provide the basics of fertile soil, full sun, mulch, staking or caging, and also try to offset the heavens to create an even supply of soil moisture. We can also grow resistant varieties, and plant them really deep for maximum rooting.

But what’s perhaps the most valuable tactic against tomato troubles—rotating your crop on a three-year cycle—isn’t so easy if you don’t have three big-enough full-sun spots to alternate among. And rotation means no Solanaceous things there in the non-tomato years, either: no potatoes, no peppers.

Below is the barest minimum of explanation to why some tomato problems occur, followed by some links I’ve collected to expert diagnostic sites that may help you get even more specific if the individual links within the sections don’t help.

ROT ON THE BOTTOM: The bottom of a tomato fruit is the blossom end, where the blossom used to be before the fruit expanded. Blossom-end rot can appear as leathery and sunken, or be watery-looking; the end is discolored, and dark.  The cause: not enough calcium, caused by water stress.  Some gardeners work lime or calcium into the beds as a preventive measure, but does it help?

GREEN ON THE TOP: On the top or stem end, problems such as “greenback” can occur when areas around the stem remain hard and green, unripened. Too much sunshine can sometimes be the culprit there.

SEEING SPOTS? Various fungal diseases, cankers, viruses and bacterial conditions can show up as spots on tomato skin, whether red or green.  If your tomatoes get anthracnose (sunken round spots that then go dark in the middle, sort of a bull’s-eye effect), alternaria canker (also known as blight, with numerous sunken gray-brown marks on fruit, both green and red, and lesions on plants, too), or black mold and ghost spot (watery spots with dark centers), crop rotation might have helped prevent it, and is a must next year.

As mentioned, a three-year cycle is ideal; two is good; skipping a year helps with some conditions and not others, but is better then no rotation.

A barrier of clean mulch applied at planting time can reduce some spores that splash up from the soil onto plants. Heirloom tomato expert Amy Goldman is using a new (reusable) material, ground cloth, the stuff of greenhouse floors and nursery pathways, and I have to say it’s looking pretty attractive to me.

TOMATO FOLIAGE can also experience all manner of spotting, and many such afflictions are symptoms of the same cankers, blights, fungi and viruses above. Sometimes leaves start to fall off after yellowing, moving up the plant, other times it’s top-down. Bacterial wilt is a top-down deal; fusarium and verticillium begin at the bottom of the plant.

WHEN NO FRUIT SETS: Sometimes tomatoes fail to set fruit, or set it and then  drop it when it’s barely the size of a small bead. Hot, dry conditions at blossom time prevents proper pollination and causes buds or tiny fruit to drop. If it’s early enough, hopefully a next round of flowers appears during more favorable weather. I know some gardeners who hose down their plants if the weather is inhospitable, hoping to encourage fruit set.

CRACKS often develop when soil moisture is uneven, and lots of moisture becomes available suddenly after not enough. Fruit swells faster than the skin can expand.  Too much Nitrogen can bring on cracking, as can some fungal diseases and even merely plant genetics (large-fruited beefsteak types are said to be more susceptible).

OTHER DAMAGE TO FRUITS can come from hail, from sucking insects, maybe from fire and brimstone, huh? It really is endless. So much so that there’s a whole annual conference called the Tomato Disease Workshop for breeders, farmers, and other professionals to try to work on problems together.

FAVORITE DIAGNOSTIC SITES: The University of Maryland has a simple diagnostic pdf, and Texas A&M and also Cornell University, each have a great, photo-driven diagnostic tool that you will want to bookmark. And Maryland’s chart of the disease resistance of various tomatoes was one of the most extensive I could find. Resistant or not, though, each of us has our own special favorites.



When the tomato crop here finally ripens, I’ll make sauce for days, a staple I rely on through the year for homemade pizzas and pasta dishes and even as stock in chilis and soups. And I’ll also put up some sun-dried tomatoes, which more accurately will be oven-dried because our late summers are usually too humid for the old-fashioned way. It’s really simple:


Halve paste tomatoes (because they are naturally driest kind anyhow) lengthwise, and place on baking sheets cut side up.

Place in warm oven (whatever your lowest setting is, perhaps with door cracked a bit) until the halves reduce to leathery but still pliable.

Remember that after they cool they will stiffen a bit more, so test-cool one or two pieces to check so they don’t get crispy.

I used to store these packed in jars of olive oil in the darkness of the pantry closet for months, and never killed anybody in the process. But in the ultra-safe world of canning and preserving we live in today, where disclaimers abound, I suppose vacuum-sealing them tightly stuffed into plastic bags would be better, or keeping them in oil and in the fridge for perhaps just a month.

Caveat emptor; we often take walks on the wild side over here, me and the frogboys.  I wouldn’t take our word for anything. :)



Now it’s your turn: Have a recipe or tip to share in the comments below? Then be sure to go visit Deb and the Dinner Tonight folks and do the same. The cross-blog event idea works best when you leave your recipe or tip and favorite links (whether to your own blog or another’s) at both host blogs, mine and Deb’s. Thanks for attending our fourth weekly Food Fest…see you next Thursday for Corn.

  1. Kerry Nolan says:

    I started harvesting earlier this week – a couple of softball-sized Brandywines, some smaller Mr. Stripeys, and about 5 Golden Boys. The plants are 10 feet tall and there are dozens of tomatoes sitting quietly, waiting for their turn to redden up. It has been a stellar year for growing them, but I’m doing it in New Jersey, and everyone knows that Jersey tomatoes are the best! :)

  2. Diva says:

    I won’t be here next week, as in Italy corn is still for pigs!

    There are fields near where I live, but have never seen a Italian eat a corn cob!

    They are facinated by canned corn now which is showing up in salads and on pizzas!

    Is there a place where you have the calendar posted for the next events where I can come and play?

    Mille Grazie!

  3. margaret says:

    @Diva: A week from Thursday, the 28th, we will celebrate any-and-all harvest produce, leading up to our Labor Day holiday weekend with lots of traditional grilling and parties. And more topics to come shortly…

  4. margaret says:

    I’m planning on making and freezing batches of marinara soon. I came across a couple recipes for green tomato mincemeat that I want to try with the ones that don’t ripen before the frost.

  5. chris says:

    monday was a hot sunny summery day the likes of which i remember fondly when growing up on the island (long, not carribean) and growing tomatoes and corn with my pop. it is also maybe the third such scorcher of this summer. so, we all need to be a bit patient and wait for the heat to warm the tomatoes into their reddened state of delight…maybe we impatient tomato growers should complain about global afternoon thundershowers rather than warming…ooops, too political.

  6. margaret says:

    Welcome, Stef, and thanks for what most be the most unusual recipe posted so far: tomato frosting. Looking forward to the cupcake, and to your next visit.

    @Maggie: I will post a mincemeat in another week or two or three, when it’s time to give up. A favorite here with green fruits.

    @Chris: Politics fine, let it all hang out!

  7. Melinda says:

    I’m devastated: no fruit on mine! It’s been hot all summer here in Dallas, and I’ve only seen 2-3 tiny grape tomatoes set. None on the heirlooms. None on the hybrids. Big ole plants, and not a ‘mater in sight. We hit a cool snap this week (highs in the low 80s) so maybe there’s still hope for some soon. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

  8. Karol says:

    What a coincidence! I picked up the September Veranda magazine and there’s a wonderful article about Amy Goldman and beautiful pictures of her heirloom tomatoes, each one looking like a ceramic figurine.


  9. Hi – well, at least I’m not alone with a green tomato problem… It is very stressfull to wait them to ripen, especially if the plants are your childrens’! Every day, they have been asking me when they will turn red. But stubbornly, all of them remain green. We might have to test the green tomato recipies, and hope for better tomato summer next year!

  10. Dahlia Delight says:

    What is the best time to apply corn gluten to lawns? Temperature of soil hits 65 and the crab grass wakes up from sleep and then leaps through August. I would also like to put down grass seed now that weather is cooling off but am afraid corn gluten will also prevent germination.. What to do?

  11. margaret says:

    Welcome, Mimi. Sounds like a good trip…and like you got back right in time (to paint the ‘Green Zebra’ fruits the right color). Enjoy.

  12. Mimi says:

    Just back from 2 weeks in China, where I don’t recall seeing a tomato. It’s a thrill to return to the Hudson Valley — my neglected garden has yellow pear tomatoes going gangbusters, and a “Green Zebra” seedling I planted is yielding big red fruit.

    I love Amy’s breakfast recipe, and know that there is nothing more beautiful than a Goldman/Schrager collaboration. Kudos to poet/scientist/farmer Amy Goldman and her definitive tomato book!

  13. Angela says:

    Here it is September 3rd, still waiting for red! Glad to see that I’m not the only one – can you post an update now that it’s 3 weeks later? I’d also love to have your sauce recipe. I looked all over for a recipe last year and didn’t find a single one. Thanks for your blog!

  14. margaret says:

    Welcome, Daska. I feel your pain. Have had several ripe ones, finally, but as you will see on today’s post am figuring green tomato recipes (in this case for mincemeat pie filling w/apples and raisins) are in my immediate future. See you soon again, I hope.

  15. Daska says:

    V. frustrated that I planted my toms in a shadier spot than I had thought, so lots of green fruit. I picked a few a week ago and this morning one had the first tinge of orangey-red. Hurrah! Maybe next week we can do the taste test…

  16. margaret says:

    @Nancy: I am slowly getting ripe ones now, but I missed the second half of July, when I normally start having fruit, and much of August, so I’ll never catch up. I think a combination of weeks and weeks of violent weather and really not sustained heat until quite late just rattled them. Amy Goldman, who commented above, lives not far from me, and my plants like hers suffered wet wet wet feet for weeks on end and cool-ish temps.

  17. Nancy says:

    Margaret, I’m wondering about why your tomatoes didn’t ripen. My CT tomatoes (zone 5a in full day sun) are ripening pretty well. I wonder if it’s because I planted them in large pots instead of sinking them in the ground. Since I don’t get to the CT garden to water as much as I’d like, the tomato plants have been somewhat stressed over the summer. Could the added stress have made the plants ripen their fruit?

  18. Nancy says:

    I suppose they really are reliant on a lot of sustained heat, and it was a cooler than average summer all around here, wasn’t it? Now as for poor Amy- how much chutney would she have to make to use up 500 plants worth of green tomatoes?! Yikes!

  19. Daska says:

    Hi again,
    had to update you – as a first year gardener in Canada, I was nervous about leaving tomatoes on the vine in case we get frost (this being western Canada, I’m warned it can snow by Halloween!)so I stripped the vines resulting in about 12lb of green fruit of all sizes – from beefsteak giants to those the size of my little fingernail. Under my mother’s instruction, I laid them out flat on trays and – magic – within two days they’re starting to develop an orange hue!

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