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. SmokeGouda says:

    my most favorite way to eat juicy ripe tomatoes is with thick slices of fresh mozzarella and a little salt pepper and olive oil. mmmmmmmm… but that is a classic, i’m sure everyone already knows about it.

  2. margaret says:

    Welcome to SmokeGouda (a good choice for an untraditional Caprese salad).

    And welcome to Gayla of You Grow Girl, who like me is struggling with too much rain (never thought I’d say that ever) and recalcitrant tomatoes.

    Balsamfir, I will post a green-tomato chutney (that I use as mincemeat pie filling) later on in the season when all hope of red tomatoes is finally lost. In case you can’t find yours…But I don’t want you or Christine to give up on tomato success, ok?

    @Napa: Your blather is always welcome. Blather on!

  3. balsamfir says:

    Somewhere I once found a really great recipe for green tomato chutney. Someday I’ll get organized early and plant real ones, since mine while ripe are tasteless.

  4. Min says:

    Love the smoked gouda in a nontraditional Caprese idea. Sometimes I make a nontraditional Caprese with roasted cherry tomatoes.
    Roasted Cherry Tomato Relish

  5. Paula says:

    Hi Margaret! I’m so excited to join the party!
    A fresh really ripe tomato may be one of my favorite things to eat period. I look forward to that first ripe tomato every summer! I can’t think of a better way to enjoy them then just sliced (still warm from the sun) piled high on bread with mayo and a sprinkle of sea salt. Perfection!
    Here’s a link to the post I wrote earlier in the summer on our farm blog.

  6. margaret says:

    Welcome to Paula, and I second that emotion: mayo and fresh tomato!

    Welcome also to JeanAnnVK. Let’s help each other remain patient…all is not lost yet (as Amy Goldman, thankfully, confirms!).

    Min, I want the recipe for the relish…hurry back to share it.

    Oh, Amy, the galette looks amazing. That photo in the book, and the one of the chips, really grabbed me, so thanks for sharing with everyone.

  7. Amy Goldman says:

    Willi, thanks for your kind words earlier in the day. I hope that you enjoy my new tomato book – published just days ago!

    Margaret, I agree with you that it’s way too early in the game to give up hope for tomato success – ripe ones – this season.

    Here’s a simple tip to tell when a full-sized tomato is ripe: At least 90 percent of the surface has changed from uniform green to a telltale color – and it’s not always red! The fruit softens too, and acquires its characteristic flavor and aroma. If in doubt about readiness, take a whiff and a bite. Some gardeners prefer to harvest their tomatoes at the “pink” stage or when “light red,” and ripen them at room temp. This can be a boon with black tomatoes, beefsteaks, and other softies that turn mealy and mushy at full maturity.

    I’d like to share with everyone a lovely snack I eat after coming in from a long day in the garden. Most people don’t think tomatoes when they think chips – but I do, tomato obsessed that I am.

    Tomato Chips

    In a saute pan, warm 1 cup of pure olive oil over medium-low heat until it begins to ripple slightly at the bottom of the pan, no higher than 140 degrees. Add 2 tablespoons finely minced garlic and remove from the heat. Infuse the olive oil for two hours. Strain out the garlic and reserve the oil.

    Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. (If using a dehydrator, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.)

    Line two rimmed baking sheets with Silpat mats.

    Slice three pounds of assorted tomatoes, about 1/4 inch thick. Brush the sliced tomatoes with the garlic oil. Season with 2 tablespoons salt, 2 teaspoons fresh-ground black pepper, and 1/4 cup finely chopped thyme.

    Place the tomatoes in the pans in a single layer and bake for 1 hour, then lower the temperature to 200 degrees. Continue baking for 3 to 5 hours (or longer, depending on the moisture content of the tomatoes) until the chips are dehydrated and crisp. If not eaten immediately, the chips should be stored in an airtight container. BTW, the chips are also fun as a garnish.

    If later in the evening you develop a craving for sweets, then I’d recommend my Galette of White Peaches and Tomatoes. For the recipe, go to my website, http://www.rareforms.com, and under Food you’ll see a link to Desserts. Enjoy!


  8. Nancy says:

    My New York tomatoes have been ripe for 10 days, and I’ve gotten a few ripe ones in the Kent garden, but my big obstacle to getting ripe tomatoes is chipmunks! The little devils must be able to eat 50 times their body weight in ripe fruit every day. I hate to set traps but it may be coming to that. At least they prefer red fruit, so I’ve had my favorite Lillian’s Yellows all to myself, so far. The most popular tomato preparation in my house is with fresh mozzarella cheese, some chopped basil, olive oil and a little salt, with crusty bread on the side. We never seem to get tired of it. Good luck with your tomatoes, Margaret – at least you know they will be worth the wait!

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Lalala. I am on the side of eating whatever bits are clean and firm. It’s how I am with all veggies and fruit; no squeamishness about a bug or a blight here or there. I cut out the bits of my (nonsprayed) apples to make sauce, etc. Go for it.

  10. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    Did you ever wonder how they cooked with tomatoes in the good ol’ days, once they decided they were edible? I’ve been wondering after reading a chapter in The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Plus, two good recipes.

  11. Lalala says:

    It’s our first year growing tomatoes, and a tough year to start! We have lots of green ones, but the only red ones so far have blossom-end rot.

    Do you think you can eat the tomatoes with rotten bottoms (cutting off the bottom)? My husband wants to…he can’t stand to see his labor go to waste. I think it is iffy at best. Anyone have a more definitive answer?

  12. margaret says:

    I have been waiting all day for the arrival of Kathy, without whom it is not really a garden event. Phew! Thanks for the recipes, and the visit.

  13. diana says:

    Tomatoes are late for us this year in Colorado. I picked our first ‘New Zealand Pear and a ‘Lemon Boy plus numerous cherry tomatoes. The NZ Pear was so delicious, meaty and juicy eaten with just a little salt.

    I almost had a heart attack this afternoon when it hailed marble-sized hail for a few minutes. Luckily our tomatoes don’t look too beaten up! In about a week we’ll have tons of tomatoes.

  14. margaret says:

    Glad the hail didn’t cause havoc, Diana. Good news.

    FYI to all: Visitor Chpaquette has started a post on the Forum here to upload harvest photos. Wait till you see his tomatoes and peppers. Nice. Maybe you want to show your stuff, too?

  15. Root & Sprout says:

    Although we’ve been snacking on Cherry tomatoes for the past few weeks, I’ve not had a single big one ripen. I’ve been gardening for the past three years, and this is the first I’ve had to wait so long. We’ve had a lot of rain and cooler/cloudy weather, and I feel we’re about a month behind in production. Frustrating!

  16. margaret says:

    Welcome to Judy, about whose weeks of tomatoes we are all feeling very jealous suddenly. :) Hope to see you again soon, and next time, bring a few to share, huh?).

  17. Judy says:

    We’ve been enjoying our tomatoes since 2nd week in July. I planted the run of the mill big boy, better boy, yellow and red cherry, they are truly like gold around our house, we love them so much.

    I bought the plants 1st week in April, kept them in my greenhouse where they were fertilized and growing like crazy until May when they went in the ground. We’re in zone 8. I found if I keep pinching back they really respond with new growth and new blooms.

    Of course I’ve had to water but we’ve been blessed with rain this summer, that makes a huge difference.

  18. margaret says:

    Thanks, Dan – I can say first-hand that for anyone within an hour or two, it’s not to be missed. Get in the car and go, go, go. And thanks for the link to your story with all the details.

  19. balsamfir says:

    Its a long term plan. Next year(the eternal next year), I’m going to start my seeds early, and allow space for vegetable seeds in addition to perennials, with room for Pineapple and Russian Black and all the others, and redig the bed and dig in compost and… I’m completely awed by the person who posted that they’ve got 500 tomato plants. Wow.

  20. Diva says:

    Ciao from Tuscany!
    Better late than never. Wanted to gather together some of my favorite recipes from Tuscany which has been my home since 1984.

    Ripe tomatoes from the farm to table, is really making the best of the “Tuscan Sun”.

    Join me in some of the Tuscan twists on tomatoes.

    Margaret there is a Green Tomato pasta sauce!

    We also make a green tomato jam to have with cheeses, epecially parmesan!
    Bon appetito!

  21. margaret says:

    Welcome to Diva, all the way from Italia. I am fascinated by your recipe ideas, and the way things are going here will definitely be making green tomato jam and everything else green tomato before long. I hope we see you on our digital shores again soon.

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