As the summer garden season nears its end – one of the biggest dilemmas for gardeners is what to do with their late season tomato plants – or more precisely – how to help them produce a few more tomatoes before the growing season comes to a close!
Let’s face it, by mid to late August, many tomato plants begin to wear out a bit. Not only can the foliage and stems become brittle and weak, the fruit the plant’s produce can often be heavily scarred and marred.
Late season tomatoes are notorious for suffering from cracking and splitting. As the outer skin cracks open, it can dry out most of the juice from the tomatoes, leaving them tasteless in the process. In addition, those cracks and openings become a haven for pests.
But even though the plants may look like the end is near, it doesn’t have to be their final curtain call. In fact, with a few simple tips and tricks, you can actually help your old plants finish strong. And in the process, provide you and your family with a final flush of fresh tomatoes!
How To Help Late Season Tomato Plants
Why Do My Plants Look Like They Are Dying?
First and foremost, it is important to know that by mid to late summer, depending on which type of tomato you are growing, your tomatoes may actually be dying off naturally – simply because of the type of tomato you are growing.
There are two varieties of tomato plants – determinate and indeterminate. Indeterminate tomatoes, if healthy, will grow until a hard frost or freeze kills them. They also will continue producing blooms and tomatoes until they die.
But if you happen to be growing a determinate tomato variety, its life span will not last through the fall. Determinate tomatoes grow and then produce their crop nearly all at once. And after they do, they will die off completely. This usually happens mid to late summer.
What Plants Am I Growing?
Unfortunately, this can lead to a lot of confusion for gardeners. Many popular tomato plants, such as Roma, Celebrity and Rutgers are all determinate varieties. And gardeners who grow these types often think their plants must be suffering from a lack of water, nutrients or even blight as they begin to die off in late summer.
If you are growing a determinate tomato plant, nothing you do will help them survive past mid to late summer. It is simply their time. But if you happen to have a few indeterminates growing, you are in luck – because you can help them continue to produce tomatoes with just a little TLC!
If you are unsure what your plant might be, you can easily check your variety. Nearly all seed companies will tell you on their websites if a variety if indeterminate, or determinate. It’s much easier than trying to find those old seed packets!
Helping Indeterminate Tomatoes Survive – How To Help Late Season Tomato Plants
Step 1 : Pick Your Tomatoes Early!
Once you have determined you are growing indeterminates – it’s time to start reviving them! And that all starts with picking your plants’ tomatoes earlier than ever.
One of the biggest issues for tomato plants by mid to late summer is that they are simply carrying too much fruit on their vines. And when they do, it leads to all sorts of issues for the plant – and the tomatoes.
When plants are overloaded with fruit, they simply don’t have enough power to ripen the existing fruit, or produce blossoms for more. This issue is known as fruit overload, and it can happen to nearly all vegetable plants. But by picking the plants more often, and leaving way less fruit on the vines, it can really help late-season tomato plants revive.
Ripening Tomatoes Off The Vine
The good news is, tomatoes actually ripen off the vine better than they do on it. Once a tomato turns blush or slightly red, pick it. By placing it in a cool area out of the sunlight, it will ripen off the vine quite well. Not only does this help the plant, but the tomato has far less ability to crack and split. See: How To Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine With Success!
If you want your plants to keep producing, picking them as early as you can is vital. In addition, as the summer progresses, allow far fewer tomatoes to hang on the plant. Don’t be afraid to even remove a few green ones as well to keep it less crowded. As the old saying goes, it is better to get something rather than nothing at all!
Step 2 : Fertilizing – How To Help Late Season Tomato Plants
By mid-summer, tomato plants have often depleted the soil of most of its nutritional value. But with a little fertilizing, you can provide them with enough power to keep on going – right up until that first frost!
The key with late season fertilizing is to provide a steady but not overpowering boost. This can be done easily with compost tea, fertilizing plants every week. As an alternative, you can also use store-bought liquid fertilizer, but be sure to apply at half strength if applying weekly. Product Link : Liquid Organics Fertilizer
It is important to us liquid fertilizer at this point solely for speed. Liquid fertilizer acts fast, absorbing through both the roots and foliage. At this point, plants don’t have enough time left to truly benefit from granular fertilizers before the season ends. You can stop all fertilizing when there is less than a month before your average first frost date.
Step 3 – Pruning & Mulching – How To Help Late Season Tomato Plants
If you have not been pruning and mulching your plants to this point – now is definitely the time to do it! Prune up under plants to remove all of the bottom foliage at least 12″ to 18″.
This will help provide circulation to plants and conserve the plants resources. It can also help prevent late season blight. In addition, always prune off any damaged limbs or stems, and be sure to remove any foliage that is browning off in large quantities.
Mulching is key now as well, not just for weed control but to help regulate the soil temperature and conserve moisture. And even if you are already mulching, now is a great time to add more!
Plants should have a minimum of 4 to 6 inches of mulch around them. Straw, shredded leaves or grass clippings are all excellent choices for mulch. In the hot summer sun, mulch provides incredible protection for the plants. Without it, plants can easily wither away.
Step 4 – Final Month – Pick Those Blossoms! – How To Help Late Season Tomato Plants
As your plants enter their final month, there is one more thing you can do to help them finish maturing the tomatoes on their vines – and that is removing any and all remaining blossoms. By late September, (or earlier in areas that get cooler even earlier) plants do not have enough time to take a new blossom to a viable fruit stage.
By removing those blossoms, you allow the plant to concentrate its resources on growing the remaining immature fruit to size before the first frost hits.
Finally, once that first frost hits – pull those tomato plants quickly and get that cover crop in! Allowing tomato plants to wither away in the garden is asking for pests and disease to take hold. Here is to getting the most from your late season tomato plants! Happy Gardening – Jim and Mary
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