Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Gardening Article: How to Extend The Growing Season for Tomato Plants

An interview with tomato gardener Ernie Shivers

What were the main challenges of this tomato growing season?

Ernie: In this area, which is the Greater Atlanta area, the temperatures this summer have been record breaking. We had many days above 90 degrees. So it has been a problem to keep the tomato plants watered enough and looking after them, and picking tomatoes as they ripen. So this has been a challenge. Some of the plant leaves started dying from the bottom and going up the plant. It is mid-September and the tops of the plants are still green, and blooming, and have small tomatoes. It has been a challenging season and I don’t think I have gotten as many tomatoes from my vines as I have in past years. I think the hot weather has been one of the things that has held the growth back. But it has been a good season and so we look forward to going on to the cooler weather now.

What do I do with tomato plants that aren’t bearing fruit or have dried up branches?

Ernie: I would suggest trimming the branches off, if they are not barren; the leaves have turned yellow or brown so I suggest more than likely they are at the bottom of the plant. I would suggest trimming those off but leave the top, if it’s still green like mine and has blooms and small tomatoes on them. I would continue watching after those. If there is any sign of bugs or worms or that sort of thing, I would suggest that you spray maybe with Miracle-Gro which is a good spray for those type of things. Then I think it might be a good idea to sprinkle a little fertilizer around the base, maybe 10-10-10 in small amounts, and rake it in and water it. Then, like I said, remove the dead leaves and branches.

With the weather cool like it is, the vine insects, the worms, have pretty well gone and I don’t think you will have any problem with them at this time. But if you do, then you can spray for them. I would continue watering the plants so that the ground remains moist and the plants have plenty of water to suck up and continue to produce tomatoes.

Do those things help to extend the growing season for the tomato plant?

Ernie: It will. We will be getting into cooler weather very shortly, like in mid-September. So a lot of areas are already cool. Our temperatures are running between 50 at night and 70 in daytime and so I think the plants are alright under those conditions. When the temperatures drop down to the 40s, I would do several things to extend the growing season. I think it would be best to watch for the cooler temperatures and when it is predicted that the temperature will be dropping to the 40s, it is time to protect your tomato plants.

When it gets down to 40 degrees, I would wrap them with a clear plastic, put them all the way around the plant, top to bottom. Leave the top open and tie the plastic so that the cold wind can’t get to the green tomato leaves and plant. Also, you might use a closely woven cloth to wrap around the tomato plant. That will keep the cold wind off the plants.

One other point I want to make is that when the weather gets down to freezing, just before the freeze comes, I would go out and pick all the green tomatoes, those that started to ripen and are big enough to eat, and bring them inside, lay them out and let them continue to ripen inside in your kitchen or even in your basement perhaps.

You mentioned smaller tomatoes. Is that typical when the sunlight begins to diminish?

Ernie: Spring time and early summer is when you get your largest tomatoes. Then the hot weather makes the tomatoes ripen quicker, so they are smaller size in August. They will continue to be small unless you have some special conditions where you can look at your tomato plants other than just normal weather.

You mean like a greenhouse or something?

Ernie: Yeah, greenhouse or something like that. In normal weather conditions they will tend to be medium to smaller sizes. You can pick the tomatoes when the weather gets down and before freezing, and bring the tomatoes in and let them ripen inside, and they will be good.

If it frosts, then it ruins the tomato, doesn’t it?

Ernie: That is right. It freezes the tomato and it will be too watery. They are not much good then.

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About the author: Ernie’s Homegrown Tomatoes is an online class where Ernie teaches how to grow tomatoes from your own garden at

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