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Year of the green tomato?

"Got any ripe tomatoes yet?" seems to be the most common question Rogue Valley gardeners are asking one another these days. And the answer usually is, "No, just a few cherry tomatoes so far."

Why is this still true in late August? Most years, we're trying to figure out how to use them all by now. After all, we've had some hot days lately, so why aren't the tomatoes responding?

For starters, we had a late, cold, wet spring. Tomatoes are a tropical vine, and respond to sustained heat. Because the soil temperature needs to be at least 65to avoid blossom end rot, the cold spring meant that many of us were unable to set our plants out until late May. And even then, you will recall, the weather wasn't really warm, and tomatoes were sluggish in growth.

Here's the next problem: our cool nights. Even when the plants finally began growing well, the chilly nights held them back. Put simply, a tomato needs a certain number of "heat units" to produce and ripen the fruit. Our cool, low-humidity nights tend to make the plant cool off, and it has to start over, in a sense, the next morning. We may like this weather pattern for sleeping, but the tomatoes are unhappy.

People are often surprised when I say it was easier to raise tomatoes in my home state of Minnesota (and other Midwestern states) than in Medford. That's because Midwest summers are humid from all that Gulf air traveling up the Mississippi River Valley, and the nights don't cool off. Great for tomatoes, but not good for sleeping.

So what can we gardeners do? I don't know of any magic way to change the weather, so I'll just go on enjoying the cooler weather and dust off my recipes for using green tomatoes, in case that is our destiny this year. I'll also keep in mind that should we have a short tomato season, we can ripen them indoors when a frost threatens.

I consulted my grandmother's cookbook, and went online, too, to see whether there are new ways to use green tomatoes. My grandmother and my mother used to make a kind of pickle relish called chow-chow, as well as one called End of the Garden Relish, which used not only green tomatoes, but corn, peppers and other late-ripening vegetables.

Online searches for green-tomato recipes yielded dozens of them, from dips, soups, jam, green-tomato pie (tastes like apple) to cake. Yes, cake — using a recipe like one for applesauce spice cake, but using green tomatoes instead of applesauce. And when visiting New Orleans a few years ago, I became a real fan of fried green tomatoes, served with mango salsa.

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, goes the saying, and I'll add that if Mother Nature gives you green tomatoes, make a cake. Wouldn't it be fun to make one, serve it to your friends or family, and then watch their faces when you tell them it was made with green tomatoes?

Coming up: A Master Gardeners class on Winter Vegetable Gardens, scheduled for Aug. 25, has been canceled.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.