How are your tomatoes doing?
“There is honestly nothing you can compare to the taste of a fresh, vine-ripened tomato, plucked at the perfect peak of sweetness and eaten warm and sugary, tart and juicy, right there in the garden as you make a big mess all over your shirt.”
— Mike McGrath, "You Bet Your Garden Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes," 2012
That’s what every tomato gardener envisions, anyway. Then somewhere between the planting and the plucking, stuff starts happening and the dream begins to fade, right along with the beefsteaks and the Romas.
Take William Alexander, for example. His book, "The $64 Tomato," chronicles misadventures with deer, groundhogs, weeds, beetles, worms and extreme weather while trying to grow heirloom Brandywine tomatoes. The subtitle says it all: "How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden."
Of course, striving for perfection was Alexander’s most costly gardening mistake, but if his tomato woes sound all too familiar, then know you are not alone. Although tomatoes are one of the most popular garden crops in Southern Oregon, the OSU Extension Service has noted several cultivation challenges and, fortunately, what to do about them.
Tomatoes are air temperature-sensitive, so intense summer heat wreaks all kinds of havoc, including blossom drop. During our recent heatwave, one of my Big Rainbow heirlooms dropped all of its blossoms as a survival mechanism, similar to a crew dropping excess cargo to save the ship from sinking. In this case, it’s the (late Master Gardener) Bill Dietz Magic Formula to the rescue: 1/4 cup organic vegetable/tomato fertilizer, 1/4 cup bone meal, and 1 teaspoon Epsom salt per plant. I’ll spread the mixture around the root area, work it lightly into the soil, and then water deeply to encourage more blossoms.
Ripening tomatoes are also susceptible to sunburn, which first appears as a light-colored patch on the side of the fruit facing direct sun. These tomatoes are still edible, provided black mold hasn’t set in; just cut off the affected part. Protect them from sunscald by using shade cloth, and be careful when pruning to keep the leaves that shield developing fruit.
Tomatoes won’t flower or set fruit when the mercury rises above 90 degrees during the day or above 75 degrees at night. Even temperatures in the mid-80s can lead to slow-ripening fruit. Provide cover, and during very hot periods bring tomatoes that are just showing color indoors to finish ripening at room temperature.
Another common tomato problem is blossom-end rot, so named for a dark, sunken spot on the fruit at the end farthest from the stem. Blossom-end rot usually occurs when gardeners allow the soil to dry out and then overwater to compensate. This pattern prevents the plant from taking up an adequate amount of calcium from the soil. The best remedy is to mulch around the plant and monitor to ensure consistent moisture levels.
I haven’t even touched on other difficulties that caused William Alexander to lament the high cost of his homegrown tomatoes, which included deer that found them irresistible. I will, however, share how Medford resident Leonard Line resolves his deer dilemma. He grows his tomato plants in a bucket and then hoists them up in the air using a rope and pulley. Now that’s what I call raising tomatoes right!
Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teaching writing at Rogue Community College. Read more about tomatoes — and see a picture of Leonard Line's rope and pulley system — on her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.