Green With Envy

THE REAL DIRT

July 25, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The neighbors are harvesting tomatoes from their gardens, and I am green with envy.

My tomatoes won't turn red.

The neighbors are picking fat scarlet globes that almost fall into their hands. My tomatoes are green and going nowhere fast. They refuse to ripen, and it's driving me nuts.

By late July, the first tomatoes should be on a plate, not a plant.

I have explained all this to my tomatoes. I've tried cheering them, coaxing them, even cursing them at times. My tomatoes should be ashamed of themselves. Not only are they lagging behind, they are in last place in the neighborhood. They ought to turn red, from embarrassment. But they don't.

Last week, I got so mad at the tomatoes that I grabbed thplants and shook them. There is method to my madness: Mild jostling of plants is said to spur their growth.

Music is also considered a plant stimulant. So I serenaded thgreen tomatoes with my rendition of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" All that did was frighten the Byrds.

I'm getting desperate. Why won't these tomatoes turn red? It has been months since I savored the real thing. George Bush was still president when I last bit into a decent tomato, the home-grown kind that explodes into juice that slides down your chin.

Eventually, my tomatoes will ripen, simultaneously no doubt, triggering frenetic efforts to preserve the harvest as described by poet Marge Piercy in "The Engulfing Garden":

" . . . tomato seeds

in my hair, tomato skins

in my teeth, the surfaces

of the kitchen heaped with

tomatoes, tomatoes in buckets,

tomatoes lined up on the window

sills . . . "

The wait is maddening, but well worth it. Nine of 10 gardeners grow tomatoes, America's most popular backyard vegetable. And each one longs to raise the first fruit of summer. Gardeners can be quite competitive and will go to extremes to earn bragging rights on their block.

But remember that climate is the biggest single factor in tomato production. A cool, rainy summer will not only delay harvest, it may ruin it altogether.

Try these tips to accelerate tomato production. (I've tried them all in my garden, though not at one time; maybe that's the problem):

* Raise plants in full sun, with a southern exposure for maximum warmth.

* Grow tomatoes in raised beds, which warm more quickly than standard gardens.

* Buy plants that have been grown in single pots, with lots of leg room. Transplants raised in 2-inch pots yield tomatoes sooner than plants grown in more cramped containers.

* Plant seedlings on a slight tilt. Planting tomatoes on an angle, with their roots nearer the surface, heats the plants quickly and accelerates growth. However, these plants are more susceptible drought and must be watered more often.

* On chilly nights, cover young plants with milk jugs or hot caps made of clear plastic. Or surround the plants with Walls-O'-Water, clear plastic tepees filled with water which, when warmed by the sun, generate heat for the plants.

* Water plants regularly. Tomatoes need a thorough soaking (1 inch of water) each week, lest the first fruits succumb to blossom-end rot (leathery-looking brown spots that make tomatoes inedible).

* Spritz flowering tomato plants with a fruit-setting hormone spray.

* Prune the suckers that sprout between the plant's main stem and the leaf stalks. Pruning tomato plants in this fashion may yield fruit two weeks early.

* Cover the tomato patch with sheets of black plastic, which absorb heat, warm the soil and speed plant growth.

* Let plants sprawl on the ground. Unstaked tomatoes are said to ripen faster. However, they are also more prone to disease and damage by predators, from garden slugs to chipmunks.

* Grow at least one cherry tomato plant. These small fruits are no match for a hearty beefsteak tomato, but they ripen before most larger varieties and whet one's appetite for the real thing.

* Pack the kids in the car and pretend to go on vacation. The first tomato usually ripens and falls as you're backing down the driveway.

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