Did you miss the opportunity to plant tomatoes this spring? Not to worry! In Central Texas, we get a second chance to plant. The goal of planting tomatoes in the summer heat is to nurse plants until temperatures drop in the fall, at which point the plants will be ready to produce a crop. Tomatoes only set fruit when temperatures are below 90 degrees, so your late-season plants will wait for fall.
When planting tomatoes in July, start them from transplants. Transplants are harder to find mid-summer than in spring, but local nurseries such as The Natural Gardener and The Great Outdoors carry them. Choose a variety appropriate for Central Texas with a short number of days to harvest, such as Early Girl or Black Cherry, so your plants have the chance to produce fruit before the first frost (average first frost date in Central Texas is November 15).
Tomatoes require plenty of nutrients and excellent drainage. Add three inches of compost to the area where you will plant, and mix it one foot into the soil. Plant your transplants two to four feet apart, depending on the variety. Plant transplants in one of two ways: plant such that the soil level is about two inches higher on the stem than it was in its original pot, or dig a trench and place the transplant sideways, so that some of the stem is buried. The hairs on the buried part of the stem become roots, allowing the plant to quickly develop a strong root system.
In order to help the plant manage the transplant shock, and the summer heat, add liquefied seaweed. Fertilize with fish emulsion to give the transplants a strong start. Install tomato cages to transplants to provide support.
Tomatoes require full sun, but in Texas, the July sun is too harsh for transplants. Provide shade by building a hoop house, from which you can hang 40% shade cloth so it blocks the hottest western afternoon sun, but allows morning sun from the east.
Keep your tomatoes happy by mulching well. Mulch maintains a consistent moisture level and soil temperature. This is important for tomatoes, since sudden changes in moisture level can cause fruits to burst and can make plants susceptible to diseases like blossom end rot.
When flowers appear on the plants, add another inch or two of compost into the surface of the soil around the plants to provide an extra boost of nutrients. This will help plants develop fruit. It also helps to add more fish emulsion and liquefied seaweed at this time.
A few pests to watch out for include tobacco and tomato hornworms, which can be picked off treated with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) products. Mites and aphids can be washed off with a strong spray of water on the underside of leaves. Stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs can be handpicked or treated with insecticidal soap sprays. Include plants that attract beneficial predatory insects like ladybugs to help control pest problems. Finally, remember that healthy plants are more resistant to pests, so taking good care of your tomatoes provides the best line of defense.
For optimal flavor, harvest your tomatoes when they are fully ripe. To prevent birds and squirrels from nabbing them first, harvest fruits when they begin to change color and allow them to finish ripening on your kitchen counter.
This grain salad is a refreshing way to enjoy your late season tomatoes. Feel free to substitute quinoa for the bulgur to make it gluten-free.