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Growing Fall Tomatoes

Fall Tomatoes
By Ron Vanderhoff - Nursery Manager

Home grown, vine-ripe tomatoes from your own garden are one of a gardeners favorite topics. The tomato season along the coast of Orange County begins about March, when transplants are set out, or February if starting from seed. If you followed this schedule you’ve been harvesting tomatoes for about three months now.

For the best gardeners, as well as those with a bit of luck, your plants may still be going strong, producing lots of fruit on healthy plants. However, for many gardeners, your plants are past their peak. Yellow foliage is abundant; dead, dry leaves are present; dieback is occurring and the plants are large, ugly and unruly.

The causes of the decline of your tomato plants are academic. Nematodes, fusarium, verticillium, septoria, alternanthera, phytophthora, blight, heat, old age, etc. Curious to diagnose, but are untreatable nonetheless. It’s akin to knowing why the milk went sour, the cat has a fur ball and aunt sue is allergic to seafood.

Best to not invest much energy in the “why” of a tomato’s decline. Even if you knew why, you probably could do little to effect any change in the plant anyway. Better to accept what is obvious and move on.

For many of us tending to coastal gardens, we are near the end of the first season, now begins the year’s second tomato season.

In recent years growing fall tomatoes is routine. The first planting in early spring, the second in later summer.

I give credit to my friend Bill Sidnam, a pioneering Orange County garden writer for first popularizing the idea of growing fall tomatoes. Many times, in the early 80’s and 90’s, I would visit Bill in his garden. We would discuss fall tomatoes, what was working and what was not.

The first poster child for all fall tomatoes was a variety called ‘Celebrity’. It is still one of the best. In subsequent years many varieties were evaluated for their fall success. ‘Early Girl’ was soon added. Over the last decade Steve Goto, aka “Mr. Tomato”, has grown the fall list to including ‘Stupice’, ‘Dona’, ‘Glacier’, ‘Jetsetter’ and others.

The first, and most difficult step for a gardener is to give up on their spring planted tomatoes. Easier said than done. The human-ness in us wants to give them a little more time. Although the plant looks awful, we think to ourselves, “there’s still a chance it will recover”. A noble thought, but not likely. It’s a downward slide from this point on for a struggling tomato. March planted tomatoes are only going to get worse, not better. Yes, there is a handful of small green fruit on the plant, so you say to yourself, “I’ll just wait until these turn red, then I’ll start a new plant”.

You know the scenario. A month later you pluck the three or four ripe tomatoes. But now you notice two more little green ones coming along, “Just a little longer, until these are ready”. By now it’s October or November and too late to have any success with a fall tomato crop. Sound familiar?

This year plant a fall crop of tomatoes. Select proven fall varieties from the list above and get them planted no later than the first half of September; by Labor Day is even better.

Regardless of what you might read or see in nursery promotions, planting tomatoes in October or November is not a fruitful experience, literally. The night temperatures are too low for the flowers to set fruit.

Tomatoes planted in August or early September will grow quickly in the warm soil, warm nights and long days. They will begin setting fruit quickly. As we move into the cooler nights and shorter days of October and November the fruit will already have been set. These “fall” tomatoes will develop and ripen slowly compared to your spring plants, but you will be rewarded with a nice crop of fresh, well-flavored tomatoes, perfect for your fall salads.

I need to warn you about so called ”winter tomatoes”. There is no such thing. Don’t get caught up in the winter-tomato hype. Winter is the perfect time for lettuce, peas, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. But not tomatoes.

If you’ve grown tomatoes for any time you have had a few plants, especially from your fall crop, limp into winter with some tiny green fruit already on them. These fruit began in October. During the short days and cool nights of November, December, January and February no more fruit were produced, but a few of these “fall” fruit ripened. The illusion of “winter tomatoes” is these fall fruit that took months, literally, to ripen.

These winter fruit look like tomatoes, but will they taste like a tomato? Without enough heat and only short, cool days to develop their sugars, these winter fruit are a bland, tasteless memory of what you became accustomed to all summer and fall. During winter you’re better off using the garden to grow lettuce, spinach and broccoli and buying your tomatoes at the ranch market.

Orange County’s second tomato season is now upon us. Again, it’ tomato planting time in Orange County.

A Ron Vanderhoff Blog


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