Monday, July 27, 2015

Thinking About Tomatoes

It won't be long before every gardener in the Valley is inundated with tomatoes. August is traditionally our best tomato month, but many people are already harvesting early fruit. We have been getting good production from our Chadwick Cherry, Amy's Sugar Gem and Marglobe plants for about a week.

The Chadwick Cherry and Amy's Sugar Gem plants have been grown in straw bales, after conditioning the bales as described in my book, Idiot's Guide: Straw Bale Gardening. The book is available here. Supported by a sturdy trellis, one plant per bale, these have grown into some of the finest tomato plants we have ever produced. See the photo. This is only two Chadwick Cherry plants, and the trellis is 6'6". The reason they are doing so well is probably the absence of soil-borne fungal diseases on the leaves. Growing in straw bales offers nearly complete protection from this problem. I was pleased to learn that Holly Jones, who is in charge of the kitchen garden at UT Gardens, has had similarly good results with tomatoes in straw bales. I strongly urge anyone interested in heirloom tomatoes to give this technique a try.

We have had a bumper crop of cucumbers and squash. The early cucumber plants came down last week, and the early squash plants are showing signs of exhaustion. We have already made second plantings of these crops for harvest in September and October.

If you grow okra, pick it every day to keep the plants producing. Okra keeps about five days in the refrigerator, and is easy to freeze. Just wipe the pods with a kitchen towel, drop them into freezer containers, label and freeze. If you want to slice the okra, you can do that before freezing, but you can also cut them up after thawing. The choice is entirely yours.

The high temperatures and heavy rainfall we have experienced this month have stressed some plants. Tomatoes, in particular, have shown signs of heat stress. If the leaves on your plants curl upward but look otherwise normal, the plants are heat stressed. Apply mulch early in the morning hours to help keep the soil cool and evenly moist. Also, pay attention to rainfall patterns. A good downpour should suffice for about two days before your plants need irrigation. When in doubt, stick your finger into the soil. If it does not feel moist in the first inch or so, it is time to water. Avoid wetting the foliage, as this encourages fungal diseases. Water the plants deeply and thoroughly. Uneven soil moisture levels lead to cracking and blossom end rot. Be especially careful with watering during hot weather. It is probably best to water late in the day, as the air is cooling off, rather than early in the morning. A drenching followed by hot sun can cause fruits to absorb water so fast they split.

Our present weather pattern favors peppers. Green fruits should be setting on most varieties by now. This would be from plants transplanted around the first of June. Bell peppers and other large-fruited varieties will benefit from thinning. Multiple fruit clusters should be thinned to a single fruit. Use the removed ones in the kitchen. Thinning will lead to larger and more flavorful fruits, and helps prevent branches from breaking under the weight of a heavy fruit set. You can also thin hot peppers if you want prize-winning size fruits, but the hot varieties are so vigorous it is not really necessary. If you do thin, take care. Hot pepper juice can burn your eyes and skin, and the stems have heat just like the fruits do.

Small hot peppers, either green or fully ripe, can be easily preserved in vinegar or sherry. Select a bottle and thoroughly clean it. Place some peppers in the bottom of the bottle, then fill it with sherry or the vinegar of your choice. Apply the cap and set the bottle aside in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks before you use it. The amount of heat will depend upon how many peppers you use. About half a cup of peppers for each cup of liquid will produce a product comparable to commercial hot pepper vinegar. Small fruited peppers work best for this, or you can cut larger peppers into chunks. Always wear plastic gloves when handling hot peppers, and take care not to get the juice in your eyes.

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