KENNEWICK -- The signs are all here: rain, blustery days, cooler temperatures and colorful tree leaves.
I suppose that means frost isn't far away.
Sadly, it's time to say good-bye to our fresh, home-grown tomatoes. Here are a few end-of-season tomato tips.
Harvesting the last fruits
With the cool weather, tomato plants have stopped growing and no more fruit will ripen on the vine.
However, if the there are fruit that have matured (showing some color or turning from a glossy darker green to a whitish green) they can be picked and ripened indoors. Left on the vine outdoors, they will suffer chilling injury from temperatures of 50 degrees or lower because the enzymes that are part of the ripening process break down when exposed to these low temperatures. That's why there is no benefit in covering tomato plants when frost threatens to kill the vines.
Before chilling injury occurs, harvest any mature tomatoes on your vines and bring them indoors to ripen at temperatures of 55 to 70 degrees.
Once inside, some gardeners like to wrap them individually in newsprint, but this makes checking them for ripeness very tedious if you have a lot of tomatoes. If you have an abundance, place them in open, shallow, cardboard boxes in single layers and cover them with newspaper. This way you can easily check for any ripe or rotten tomatoes periodically.
Remove rotten tomatoes as soon as they're detected. Mature green tomatoes will take about two weeks to ripen if held at 70 degrees.
Keep records and rotate your crops
Its' a good idea to keep a garden journal or even just a simple file tracking your vegetable garden's history. It's handy to note what crops and what varieties you grew, which ones did well, which ones didn't do so well, and what varieties you want to plant again.
It's also important to note where you plant different crops from year to year so you can rotate them. If you plant the same crops in the same location year after year, certain soil-borne diseases are likely to build up. If you plant tomatoes in the same spot, verticillium or fusarium wilt fungi are likely to build up in the soil to levels that will make it difficult to grow tomatoes or their close relatives. Once at these levels, they will remain in the soil for a number of years and prevent you from growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes in that area.
Admittedly, crop rotation is difficult for today's home gardeners who tend to grow veggies more intensively on smaller patches of ground. However, it's still a good idea to rotate your crops if possible. Divide your garden into quadrants and it can work.
Follow the tomatoes (and relatives) with beans and peas; followed by squash, cukes and melons; and then followed by cabbage, broccoli and greens. Every fifth year, tomatoes and relatives will be in the same quadrant.
There are cultivars (varieties) of tomato that are rated as resistant to verticillium or fusarium wilt disease. If you can't rotate as often as advisable, you should definitely be planting cultivars that are noted as "VF resistant" indicating that they're verticillium and fusarium wilt resistant. However, while these plants are resistant, they're not immune and can succumb if planted in soils where the amount of disease is high. Check plant tags and seed catalogs to determine if the varieties you're planting are "VF" resistant.
* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.