Guest column: Growing fall tomatoes in Oklahoma

The Daily Ardmoreite
Pat Neasbitt
Master Gardener

This may just be the perfect year to grow fall tomatoes in Oklahoma since our summer hasn't been too horribly hot for too terribly long, and we have actually gotten some rain this summer. Fall is a great time to garden because there are fewer insects, fewer weeds, less watering, and it's cooler for the plants and for us.

If you want to try for a decent fall tomato crop, here are some things I've learned: There are two schools of thought - set out new plants in July or carry over the spring plants into fall. If you decide to pull out the old plants, you will need to purchase plants that can stand up to the heat and still have time to produce a crop before the first freeze. The problem is that it's almost impossible to find tomato plants to replant in July and who remembers to start seeds when it's 100+ degrees outside.

The only other way to have fall tomatoes is to use the spring plants already in your garden. Indeterminate plants (the ones that are 6' tall now and pulling their cages over) are the ones you want to try to rejuvenate for fall. Some sources will tell you to cut them back to about knee high. My experience with this type of cutting back is total failure. They grow from the ends so if you severely cut back the plant you will cut back all of the new growth and potential flowers and fruits. Yes, tomatoes are technically fruits because they form from flowers and have seeds; however, they are not sweet and I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t classify and consider them as a vegetable.

I’ve been much more successful with fall tomatoes by just cleaning up the existing plants by removing the dead leaves and cutting back the obviously dead areas of the plant. I've found it also works well for the whole season to actually prune tomato plants and remove about a foot of the lower limbs above the ground. Many tomato diseases are soil-born and spread by splashing on the plants during rain or watering. Tomato plants almost always start showing disease and stress by dying back from the bottom up. Limbing them up and applying a good layer of mulch helps to cut down on diseases and keeps tomatoes off the ground where they tend to rot and get eaten by critters.

I just finished pruning my tomato plants that had grown way too big and gotten way too many leaves because we have actually had quite a lot of rain this summer. I try to keep suckers (the stems that grow in the junction between the main stems) clipped off consistently; however, there were still so many leaves in the center of the plants that they were too shaded and could not get good air circulation. With all the rain, there is danger of the foliage staying wet too long and diseases developing. I had a huge pile of stems and leaves even though I made sure to only clip those that did not have flowers or developing fruit on them. I only sacrificed one tomato and a few flowers that were hidden and I accidentally clipped. I make sure not to prune any top growth because I want it to keep growing and producing.

Once you have cleaned up the tomato plants, you need to take good care of them by keeping up an even watering schedule and controlling insects and diseases. I removed 2 tomato hornworms before they defoliated an entire plant. I know, they turn into beautiful hummingbird moths; however, sometimes they need to be bird snacks instead of being allowed to snack on my tomato plants. Don't apply a lot of chemical fertilizer, or you'll have lots of leaves and no tomatoes. You can give plants a boost after pruning by applying fish emulsion, seaweed extract, or compost or manure tea. With luck and cooler temperatures, your plants should begin to produce again; and you'll have tomatoes until frost.

Your plants are looking good and starting to produce once again. You've got it made, right? I’ve had tomato plants loaded with green tomatoes in late October. They just needed a couple more weeks and they would start to ripen. What could possibly go wrong? Mother Nature can often step in with an early frost. It doesn't take much frost to destroy tomato plants entirely, so if one is predicted, you need to pick the green tomatoes. Once picked, there are a number of methods for ripening green tomatoes. One problem is that a tomato needs to have reached a certain maturity level before it will ripen at all. Sometimes I can tell which tomatoes will ripen - they aren't totally green and hard and have a faint blush of color beginning. Probably the most common method of ripening green tomatoes is to individually wrap them in newspaper and store them in a single layer in a cardboard box or plastic bin. You don't want to just toss them in unwrapped, because if one tomato goes bad, the others it is touching usually will, also. The box should be stored in a cool, slightly humid place out of direct sunlight. If you have a basement or cellar, you have an ideal place. If you stick them under the bed, don't forget to check them occasionally to remove any that are beginning to go bad and look for ripening ones. If you get lucky, you'll have ripe tomatoes for Thanksgiving. If they don't ripen, you can always make chow-chow or have fried green tomatoes.

Home Gardening & Landscaping If you are interested in learning more about growing tomatoes and gardening in southern Oklahoma, Betty Sue Tow and I will be teaching Home Gardening & Landscaping for the fall semester on Mondays from 6-8 at Southern Tech in Ardmore. You can go by to enroll or call at 580 224 8200.

Learn what, when, where, and how to plant in Southern Oklahoma, and how to work with what you have to make a lovely yard that is both beautiful and beneficial for the environment. Classes will include Organic Gardening, Landscape Planning, Xeriscape Gardening, Native Plants, Vegetable Gardening, Oklahoma Proven Plants, Lasagna Gardening, Raised Beds, Crepe Myrtles, IPM, Pass Along Plants, Cottage Gardening (New American Gardening), Soil Preparation, Seed Starting, Plant Propagation, and lots more. Hope to see you in class & Happy Gardening!