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Growing fall tomatoes.

Is it possible to enjoy fresh tomatoes with your Christmas meal? The answer is yes, if you live in Southeast Texas, if you have made plans well in advance, did everything just right, and had some luck with the weather.

Dottie and I have enjoyed fresh tomatoes in November and December for the past several years. Here is how we did it:

In late August we bought a dozen early maturing tomato plants from a local nursery.

We planted them in a part of the garden which would be well-drained and have a southern exposure (the extra sun would be needed later). Then we constructed a makeshift frame from a cow panel and some steel fence posts. On this frame we placed an old trampoline canvas in such a way that the plants would get some morning sun but were shaded for most of the day when temperatures reached near 100 degrees.

We found that the plants must be protected from the sun at this time, or they will quickly die. If they are protected and supplied enough moisture and nourishment, it is surprising how well they will do.

As the weather got cooler, we removed the cover and exposed them to full sunshine. Thus they grew rapidly in September and October and began producing tomatoes in November.

When frost threatened Dottie and I threw a black plastic sheet over the supporting frame and secured it with rocks and dirt. Then we stretched an extension cord from the workshop and placed a heat lamp inside.

Yes, we worried about the plants, but they survived the cold weather, even when the temperature dropped down to the mid-twenties. Apparently the warmth of the ground along with the heat lamp was enough to keep the plants alive and undamaged.

After that, the weather warmed up and we rolled back the plastic. We have many days in the 70s and 80s and the tomatoes thrived. So we enjoyed fresh tomatoes every day from mid-November until Christmas.

In late December we pulled the rest of the tomatoes off the vines and wrapped the pink and green ones in newspaper and placed them in the house under the bed (where the temperature averages about 68 to 70 degrees). As these tomatoes gradually ripened, we continued to enjoy them until well into January.

These newspaper-wrapped tomatoes were not quite as tasty as the vine-ripened ones, but they still had that fresh taste I associate with vine-ripened tomatoes.

One season several years ago we tried to start our own fall tomato plants by planting the seeds in July and flooding and shading the seed bed. It worked, but the plants came along too slow in the heat. At transplanting time they were smaller than we wanted them to be. For this reason our fall crop missed three weeks of the best bearing time.

Now we buy vigorous plants at the nursery which are provided at exactly the right time. Since we plant only a dozen or so plants, the expense is minimal.

Obviously we don't set large numbers of fall tomato plants because of the effort it takes to protect them, first from the blistering heat of August and, then, from the frosts in November and December.

We plant the bulk of our tomatoes in the spring when we enjoy about 60 continuous days of fresh tomatoes on the table and also make tomato juice, catsup, and picante sauce. At that time we also freeze 30 or 40 pounds of tomatoes in plastic bags to use all winter when making stew, chili, chicken noodle soup, or any other dish where such tomatoes can be used. Most of the time we have enough of these to last us until the spring tomatoes start coming in again.

If you don't happen to have a recycled trampoline canvas around, you can use the same kind of netting used by nurseries to protect the tomato plants from the August sun. Or, if you operate on a tight budget, you can use old burlap feed sacks, an old bed sheet, or anything similar that will provide shade.

For frost protection you can use the black plastic, an old wagon sheet, or even old quilts or rugs. The main thing is to keep the temperature above freezing during cold snaps. You will, of course, have to remove these covers after the cold weather is gone so that the plants can get sunshine.

Yes, growing fall tomatoes is risky and requires some extra effort, but we have really enjoyed doing this for the past several years.

One of the greatest rewards I had was at last Thanksgiving when my son proudly pointed out the ripe tomatoes hanging on the vine to a city friend and said, "My mom and pop can do this. Most people can't."
COPYRIGHT 1995 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Novosad, Jerry B.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Words:801
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