Time Is Here for Tomatoes!
I’ve tried for the past 40 years to talk Texans into planting tomatoes in mid-summer for a bountiful harvest in fall. So have the vegetable specialists with Texas A&M – after all, that’s where I learned it back in the 70s.
The case is easy to make. 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.
But the problem comes in getting Texans to set foot into their gardens in the middle of summer. 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.
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 retail 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. The problem, I’ve found, is that not enough consumers ask for them early. Make the call and you may be surprised to find them.
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. I mentioned that here a couple of weeks ago. They root quickly, and you can have plantable transplants within 2 or 3 weeks. That should still 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.