Homegrown Tomatoes

By Paul James

“Only two things money can’t buy. That’s true love, and homegrown tomatoes.” So said the late, great singer/songwriter Guy Clark in his 1983 ode to America’s most popular backyard crop titled, appropriately enough, “Homegrown Tomatoes.” No doubt most of us would agree with him, but getting a good harvest of homegrown tomatoes can be tricky.

After all, tomatoes are vulnerable to a number of diseases, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Some diseases prefer cool spring temperatures while others prefer the heat of summer, which means the plants are vulnerable to attack throughout the growing season. And all can be rather nasty and difficult to control. Insects can wreak havoc on tomatoes as well, although they’re generally easier to control than diseases assuming you act before the pest population gets out of control. And there are other issues such as blossom-end rot and cat facing and sunscald, just to name a few.

But for many gardeners, including me, the greatest threats to homegrown tomatoes are squirrels and birds, both of which have the uncanny ability to attack the ripening fruit the day before we intend to harvest.

And yet, despite what seems to be a doomed-to-fail scenario, we continue to grow tomatoes year after year because the lure of getting at least one tasty treat is as powerful as our quest for true love. Or the perfect BLT.

If your tomatoes have fared well so far this year, good for you. Keep in mind, however, that as daytime temperatures exceed 90 and overnight temps remain in the mid 70s, your plants may stop setting fruit. That’s a normal response, and there’s not much you can do about it. The condition tends to affect heirlooms more than hybrids, but in both cases the situation will reverse itself once temperatures moderate. And if temperatures remain mild from late summer to fall, the fruit that develops will have time to ripen.

In the meantime, be on the lookout for pests and diseases, consider fertilizing your plants to replace the nutrients lost in fruit production, water frequently -- deep soaking the plants each time while keeping the foliage dry -- and mulch heavily. And as you do all that, think of these two lines from the same Guy Clark song.

“Plant 'em in the spring eat 'em in the summer.
All winter without 'em's a culinary bummer.”