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Tips to improve your tomato harvest

Shelly Jarka Cherry tomatoes
TASTY TOMATOES: Growing tomatoes can be a challenge, but the reward is worth the effort.
Through the Garden Gate: Harvest tomatoes early and often.

Tomatoes are the No. 1 reason I enjoy growing a garden. I grow tomatoes for salads and to make salsa, stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce and fried green tomatoes, and of course, to eat fresh. Whatever reasons you grow tomatoes, the following tips will help you improve your harvest:

Water consistently. Tomatoes need consistent moisture to grow leaves and produce and ripen fruit. Plants can become stressed if they don’t receive enough water. This can leave the plant vulnerable to diseases and unable to absorb and use nutrients.

Uneven watering also affects the fruit. Tomatoes may crack if the plant doesn’t have enough moisture. If it rains after a dry period, the fruit may split from the extra shot of moisture. Alternatively, overwatering tomato plants will lead to saturated soil that suffocates plants.

The goal is to try to keep the soil evenly moist. Water your tomatoes when the soil feels dry an inch or 2 below the surface. Water deeply at the base of the plant, so the moisture soaks into the soil and reaches the roots.

Scout for insects, disease. At least once a week, walk through your garden and look at your tomato plants. Check the leaves, especially the lower ones, for leaf spots and holes. Look over the fruit for damage, soft spots or cracks.

One of the most common pests you may find are tomato hornworms. Hornworms are large green caterpillars that feed on tomato leaves and fruit. If you find some, drop the worms into a jar of soapy water.

Some plants can survive while infected with a plant disease. Some diseases will kill your plants. Scout your plants often, and remove yellow or brown leaves and any rotten or damaged fruit.

Pick often. Harvest tomatoes frequently so the plant can focus its energy on growing and ripening more fruit. Once your tomatoes begin ripening, check the plants each day; pick those that are almost ready and let them ripen fully indoors.

If you are like me, you live for vine-ripened tomatoes, but the reality is, the longer the fruit remains on the vine, the more susceptible it is to damage by pests and spoiling. Luckily, tomatoes continue to mature off the vine and will have the same flavor as ones that ripen on the plant.

It’s better to pick tomatoes before peak ripeness to reduce the chances of losing the fruit altogether. Some reasons for harvesting tomatoes when partially ripe include:

  • A ripe tomato is attractive to pests. The sweet fragrance and bright color of ripe tomatoes are appealing to insects, birds, chipmunks and other critters. The skin of a ripe tomato may split if the plant receives too much rain in a short amount of time. Once the skin has split, the fruit is defenseless against rot, mold and insects. If you are expecting a rainy period, harvest your ripe tomatoes.
  • Tomatoes stop ripening at temps above 85 degrees F. Tomatoes that are nearly ripe may start rotting during a period of hot temperatures. If you are expecting several hot days in a row, harvest all your almost ripe tomatoes and bring them indoors to finish ripening.

As tomatoes ripen, they change from green to yellow-green, and then to their final color. The color deepens further as the fruit matures. A completely ripe tomato will feel firm but slightly soft. Harvest your tomatoes when they look almost ripe.

Harvest carefully. Take care not to damage tomato plants when harvesting. Almost ripe tomatoes will come off the vine with a simple twist, or you can use clippers or a sharp knife.

Bring the tomatoes inside and store at room temperature on a kitchen counter or any location away from direct sunlight. Your tomatoes should fully ripen in two to four days. Once ripe, use the tomatoes within a few days.

Growing tomatoes can be a challenge, but the reward is worth the effort. Whether you are new to growing a vegetable garden or have been growing gardens for years, you will benefit from some planning each year.

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TAGS: Vegetables
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