Fall Tomatoes Start Now!
I learned from my cohorts, the vegetable specialists with the Extension Service back in the ‘70s, that fall gardens were often more productive than spring gardens. At first I doubted their claims. My background, after all, was all in ornamental horticulture, not fruit and vegetables.
One year of growing fall tomatoes and I was convinced. Fall tomatoes grow at a time when early blight and spider mites won’t wreck the plants. They mature at a time when 100-degree temperatures won’t cause them to crack and split. Color and flavor are better – they’re just all-around more rewarding.
Fall tomatoes start now!
Yes – you have to plant transplants in the middle of the summer in order for them to have time to yield heavily and for the fruit to mature before the first killing freeze. That means the last week of June and first week of July in North Texas, and a week or 10 days later in South Texas.
Let’s assume the average date of your first killing freeze is November 20, as it is in Dallas/Fort Worth where I garden. (Not many people actually live in my garden, so I’ll let you make your own adjustments.)
Let’s do the math backwards…
• Most tomato varieties produce their first fruit after 70 or 75 days. That’s 2-1/2 months, so we’re back to September 1.
• But you don’t want just one fruit – you want at least six weeks’ worth of production. That puts you back in mid-July.
• We could have an early first freeze, plus cooler weather means the plants grow more slowly, so add in another two or three weeks of time. There you are: late June, early July.
• As mentioned, you could slide those dates two weeks later in South Texas.
Getting the plants started
Ask your favorite local independent garden center if they have fresh tomato transplants in stock. If not, ask when they will arrive. If they won’t have them, call another nursery.
Plant small or mid-sized varieties for fall tomato crops, just as you do for the spring. Large-fruiting types like Big Boy and Beefsteak don’t set well when temperatures are above 90 or below 70 (like the fall plants will encounter).
You could take cuttings from your best and healthiest spring plants. They root quickly, and you’ll have plantable transplants within 2 or 3 weeks. That should be ample time.
Acclimate the plants to full, hot sun before setting them into well-prepared garden soil.
Still, provide each plant with temporary shade from a piece of cardboard folded and placed over it like a small tent. Put stakes beneath it so it can’t weight down and crush the plant. Gradually remove it over a period of four or five days.
Grow your tomatoes in wire cylinders. I use cages that are 4 feet tall and 17 inches in diameter, and I make them from concrete reinforcing wire. Push shoots inside the cages to keep the vines and the fruit off the ground.
Apply a water-soluble, high-nitrogen fertilizer to the plants to keep them growing actively.
See if you don’t agree that fall tomatoes are light years better than the spring crop. But only if you plant soon and take great care of your plantings.
Fall tomatoes are great in large pots. I use old 10-gallon nursery pots filled with top quality potting soil.