The end of summer has arrived! Kids are returning to school, the weather is cooling a bit, and summer gardeners are wrapping up their harvests and finishing their growing season. But just because autumn is on its way doesn’t mean you have to toss out those tomato plants! Even if you’ve had a great harvest and your garden is slowing down or looking a little sad, you can still rescue tomato plants and eat fresh, delicious garden tomatoes right up until your frost date! Here are some organic, earth-friendly ways to boost your aging tomato plants for a late summer/early fall harvest!
By the end of the summer, tomato foliage can be a little out of control! Unchecked or trimmed plants can crowd and shade smaller plants, leading to smaller tomato production, so now is a good time to trim back any dead leaves or stems. Try to avoid cutting the main stalks of the plant, but do trim up lower branches to allow for air circulation and sun. Stake up tall branches and stalks to provide support and to keep fruit off the ground where rot, disease and pests can have easy access.
Check for Disease
Depending on the variety, tomato plants can be prone to some disease and sickness. While the plants may look discolored, sad and produce little fruit, there is no danger to humans from tomato plant diseases. Many fungal infections can spread from plant to plant, so it is important to remove diseased foliage and maintain air circulation before it grows out of control. Look for wilted, droopy or powdery splotches on leaves or stems and remove gently, washing hands thoroughly before touching new plants. If the plant is severely weakened by fungal wilt infections, it is unlikely to be strong enough to produce much fruit and it is best to remove the plant all together (make sure not to dispose of it in the compost) to avoid the infection spreading to the rest of the plants. Additionally, when planning your garden for next year, don’t plant tomato crops in the same location as diseased tomatoes for at least three years. Plant cover crops, corn, peas or beans to replenish nutrients and rid the soil of any viruses.
Check for Pests
Holes in the leaves of your tomato plants or in the fruit itself could be due to a variety of garden pests. Look for chubby green tomato hornworms, slugs, or pill bugs. If your tomato plant is covered in a fine, web-like material, it is being attacked by spider mites, which cover the plant with their webbing and suck the nutrients from the leaves, severely disabling the plant’s ability to photosynthesize. Small, white scaly critters covering the leaves are aphids, which will debilitize plants by sucking them dry like little vampires. Many pests can be safely removed by spraying both sides of leaves with a strong stream of water, by using an organic insecticidal soap, such as Neem Oil, or deterred with companion planting or natural predators such a ladybugs or praying mantis.
Mulch and Water
Discard old mulch and replenish with new mulch to keep soil and roots warm as the weather cools. Also, be sure to water plants low, to keep water from splashing on the leaves, which can stress the plants in cooler temps as well as leave them vulnerable to infectious fungal spores.
Tomatoes can be prone to developing blossom end rot, which may look like a disease, but is actually caused by uneven watering or a calcium deficiency in the soil. You can cut off the blossom end rot and still eat the rest of the tomato safely. Soil test kits can be used and soil amended as needed, but sometimes a quick Epsom Salt snack will boost tomato plants right up.
With a little late summer maintenance, your tomato plants should have a productive last hurrah! But if your tomatoes are still green when that frost date is looming, don’t fret. Pick green tomatoes, and seal in a brown paper bag on your countertop. The trapped gasses will cause the fruit to ripen and you’ll be enjoying summer fresh tomatoes while the leaves change color outside! Can’t wait? Try making a delicious batch of Oven Baked Green Tomatoes, or use up the last of your garden basil in Fresh Green Tomato, Charred Corn and Basil Salsa.
Lead image source: Aine D/ Flickr