Tomato Time!

Tomato Time!

By now, the rising growth of tomato plants in your garden with their promising yellow flowers has your mouth watering. "Hurry," you think while watering those sluggish, tiny tomatoes. "Hurry."

Eventually your tomato plant will produce, though this year's cold spring has likely delayed home production. Here are three tips for success from the woman to whom Jackson County master gardeners go for tomato advice, Marjorie Neal.

"First, it's time to cut down on nitrogen during this time," says Neal. "Nitrogen is going to make a green plant and isn't involved in the production of blooms or tomatoes."

Fertilizers need to contain phosphorus and potash (potassium) at higher ratios than nitrogen, so look for labels that read 5-10-10, 5-10-5 or have a higher rate of phosphorus, the middle value.

"The second thing is to water properly," Neal continues. "Tomatoes like the ground evenly moist. They don't want to drown or dry out. Some people soak their plants and then forget them for two weeks. That's a recipe for blossom-end rot."

Blossom-end rot looks like something terrible has happened to the bottom of the fruit, which is black and distorted. It's caused when water is unavailable, and the plant is unable to withdraw calcium from the soil, says Neal.

"It's not a disease, but a cultural disorder. You can spray the plant to give it calcium, but this is not as effective as preventing the disorder in the first place," she says. "There's nothing you can do about the ones that are affected."

Her third bit of advice may explain the erratic behavior of your tomatoes during the hottest parts of summer.

"Tomatoes have genetic heat tolerance. Most tomatoes shut down at 95 degrees," she says. "The plant won't form blossoms, and the blossoms which are present won't set tomatoes. Higher heat tolerance is bred into some tomatoes. 'Medford' is an excellent choice."

Gardeners, you know what to do. Meanwhile, the garden-free can look for tasty local tomatoes to become available soon. Jeanne Evers, a master gardener and food preserver, shared some cautions and an easy recipe for keeping those tomatoes for year-round eating pleasure.

First on her list: People need to know tomatoes are no longer an acid food, so when canning tomatoes, add acid.

"It's a real safety issue now," says Evers.

The changing weather, hybridization, new varieties and soil preparation all contribute to the decrease in acidity, she says. Make sure you are using a book published after 1988, she says. The recipes in mother's old "Joy of Cooking" don't address these changes.

"Don't go on the Web and pull up any old recipe," says Evers. Apparently, even though the Web is modern, you can't be sure the recipe is.

"And don't can recipes that you fool around with, like salsas with peppers and onions or garlic. You change the acidity."

The Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center has a safe recipe booklet for about a dollar, says Evers. "The 'Ball Blue Book' is a wonderful source and affordable."

Here's her way of "putting up" tomatoes. "This is a really easy, safe way to keep them for the winter months. No measuring — I like that," says Evers.

Of course, they may not make it into the freezer this early in the season. No worries. The tomato season has just begun.

TIP: Roasted Tomatoes for freezing

Cut up tomatoes into approximately 1-inch squares. Coat with olive oil, adding whatever seasonings you prefer. Possibilities include thyme, salt, a pinch of sugar, rosemary or oregano. Spread into one layer on a cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan. Place in oven at lowest setting, stirring every hour. Plan on drying for five hours for a full cookie sheet. Cool and put into freezer containers. Use in any recipe that calls for tomatoes, such as stir-fries, omelets or pizza.

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