waiting, waiting (for a ripe tomato)
WELCOME 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 CROP RIPENS, I’LL MAKE…
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. :)
HOW THIS CROSS-BLOG FOOD FEST WORKS:
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.