It's August, the height of tomato season. In backyard gardens across the country, late summer is a time of an abundance of vegetables, and the tomato is king. With their sweet, juicy flavor and high yields, it's no surprise that tomatoes are the most widely grown vegetables in American gardens.
Tomatoes taste best fresh from the garden, but often you have more than you can consume or even give away. What to do with all those extra fruits? Here are some ideas for processing and preserving fresh tomatoes and suggestions for ways to keep the harvest coming.
Indeterminate cherry tomato varieties, such as 'Large Red Cherry', will produce large plants and far more fruits than you can possibly consume. Keep these fruits picked or they will crack on the vine and rot, spreading diseases to other tomatoes. Other dwarf varieties with small fruits, such as 'Patio', don't produce an excess of fruits so they are perfect for the occasional tomato salad.
One way to preserve the excess of tomato fruits is to dry them. While any tomato can be dried, the best types for drying are small-fruited plum and pear varieties because of their low water content and meaty flesh. Also, dried cherry tomatoes make excellent snacks. You can air dry the fruits on a screen outdoors if you live where the temperatures are consistently in the 90s with low humidity. For everyone else, the best bet is to use a food dehydrator or oven to dry the fruits.
Cut the tomatoes in half and dry them in a 150-degree oven for 6 to 12 hours. Place the prepared fruits skin side down on a plastic-mesh screen, or on a baking sheet lined with cooking parchment or a silicon baking mat. Prop open the oven door slightly to allow the moist, hot air to escape. When finished, dried fruit should be uniformly dry and pliable, and not sticky when cool. Store in glass jars for use in soups and stews in winter.
Meaty tomato varieties, such as 'Roma' and 'Rutgers', are also perfect for making tomato sauce or canning. Check your local County Extension Office for the latest recommendations on how to can tomatoes. Large-fruited, slicing varieties, such as 'Big Beef' and 'Better Boy', produce watery fruits and take awhile to cook down into a sauce. The best way to store extras of these fruits is to freeze them.
Freeze tomatoes by scalding the whole fruits for 30 seconds in boiling water -- just enough time to loosen their skins. Place the tomatoes, whole or sliced, on a cookie sheet and place it in the freezer. After 24 hours, when the tomatoes are frozen solid, place them in containers.
Late-Summer Tomato Care
Indeterminate varieties will continue to produce fruits until frost, insects, diseases, or you decide to stop them. Determinate and dwarf varieties will naturally slow down production on their own.
Tomatoes won't color up well when temperatures reach consistently above 86 degrees F. The color will be faded or yellow. During this period, harvest fruits before they're fully ripe and allow them to mature indoors (see below). As temperatures cool, the plants will continue to produce and the color will improve.
In southern regions continue to fertilize monthly with a complete fertilizer and water regularly to keep the plants healthy. Blossom end rot can be avoided with regular waterings and by mulching the plants. Check for leaf diseases and pick off infected leaves and stems. However, don't remove too much foliage or the remaining fruits will get sunburned. Pick and discard any rotten or damaged fruits.
Check plants and fruits for insects, such as tomato hornworms and pinworms. Handpick the hornworms before they defoliate the plants. You can also spray large infestations with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control them. Check fruits and leaves for pinworm activity. Pick and destroy any damaged fruits and rolled leaves that contain larvae inside. Spray spinosad to control the young larvae.
Harvesting Before Frost
In cool areas, late-season varieties may have a tremendous amount of unripe fruit still on the vine by the time frost is predicted. To speed up their maturity, remove new flowers and small fruits. These won't have time to mature before frost. Root prune the plant so it sends more energy into fruit development. To root prune, take a spade and dig around the drip line of the tomato plant, severing some of the roots. This will signal the plant to mature its fruits.
Any fruits that are showing color when picked and are blemish-free will eventually ripen indoors. When picking fruits to ripen indoors, wash off the skin with a mild bleach solution to kill any disease spores. Place the fruits in a warm, bright (65-degree F) room on a counter not touching each other. Cover with newspaper.
Don't give up on any green tomatoes left when frost threatens. They also can be harvested and used in casseroles or fried. The green fruits add a tangy flavor to a variety of dishes.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Q: This is my first year growing a vegetable garden. When do I pick my okra?
A: Okra may be picked anytime after blooming. The fruits don't necessarily ripen, but just get larger and eventually tougher. Pick when the pods are still tender. The timing differs with variety but a good rule of thumb is to pick when pods are 4 inches long. If the pod breaks apart cleanly when you bend it, it's still tender. Older, tough pods will crack like a semi-woody stick with the fibers hanging on. They should be discarded.