Home & Garden

Get ready for Tomato Day

When you’re out in your garden in the next couple of weeks, be on the look-out for tomatoes you can enter in Tomato Day contests on July 27 at the Extension Education Center, 21st and Ridge Road.

What are you looking for? A huge tomato, an ugly tomato, the perfect heirloom specimen. Pretty and uniform sets of Roma or plum tomatoes, cherry or pear tomatoes, or a beautiful cluster of grape tomatoes.

Your chances of finding entries are a million times better this year than they were during last year’s blast furnace. In fact, I wondered whether tomatoes had been hanging back a little because of the long, cool spring, but “we're pretty much caught up,” extension agent Rebecca McMahon said this week, on a day when master gardeners harvested more than four pounds from their demonstration garden. “We figure peak is late July, so we're about where we would expect to be at this time.”

Tomato Day is scheduled every summer to be near that peak – the last Saturday of July. The event will be from 7 a.m. to noon at the Extension Center, 21st and Ridge Road, and is free. Among the speakers this year will be Damian Lehman, executive chef at the Wichita Country Club, who will demonstrate cooking with tomatoes, and Melvin Epp talking about organic tomato gardening. Horticulturist Ward Upham of K-State will pop down from Manhattan to address growing tomatoes in heat and drought, and tomato pests and diseases.

Of course if one thing isn’t wrong with the weather it’s another. This time it’s rain splashing fungi from the soil onto the leaves of tomato plants.

“We are seeing a lot of early blight,” Rebecca said. “We've had a couple of years’ reprieve for the most part from early blight and from septoria leaf spot. There’s definitely an uptick in those two. It's not unusual – it’s just kind of the old usual.”

The old usual – oh yes, I remember you. Spots on leaves, yellowing that moves from the bottom of the plant upward – problems that are helped with good air circulation, and watering in the morning just on the ground, and changing where you plant tomatoes every year so they aren’t in the same spot for three years.

Plants need to be treated with chlorothalonil when symptoms are first seen, on upper and lower leaf surfaces, reapplying after a rain, Ward Upham says. Chlorothalonil isn’t your only choice, but it’s good because you can harvest the same day, once the spray is dry, he says.

This is the time of year when I realize that my tomatoes might be farther along if I’d fertilized them recently, and I knock around the old garden shed looking for something to put on them. I try to stay organic – using organic fertilizer earlier in the year – but at this point in the summer I think things need more of a jolt, so I bumble around for a while before I go to see what’s on the nearest garden-center shelf and buy that.

Rebecca was having a similar fertilizer moment, acknowledging that the demo garden’s tomatoes had been riding the wave of being planted in soil amended with compost and an initial starter fertilizer.

“I've been thinking about it. Things are still looking pretty good,” she said. Barring a soil test that calls for something else, tomato plants in a similar condition can be sidedressed now with a fertilizer that’s a bit higher in phosphorous and lower in nitrogen, she said.

The demo garden is growing six red and six yellow varieties of tomatoes plus a couple of grape tomatoes on the trellis, Rebecca said. So far she is hailing Taxi, a yellow tomato that’s determinate (smaller than the rangy indeterminates) but “just loaded with tomatoes. I think we harvested five or six ... and it is still loaded with green tomatoes.”

Not living up to its name – at least so far – is Iron Lady, which is supposed to be resistant to early blight and septoria leaf spot but hasn’t been. To be fair, Rebecca said, the resistance is supposed to be better when Iron Lady is set apart from lesser varieties, but it’s rubbing shoulders with the commoners. And not outshining them. “To me it’s an ‘eh’ plant,” Rebecca said.

Jetsetter has produced a couple of really nice big tomatoes, though it was the first to show signs of early blight and doesn’t have a huge number of tomatoes on it, she said.

Three of the varieties are heirlooms: Arkansas Traveler, which has already produced a couple of ripe tomatoes; the wonderfully named Limmony, which is supposed to heft yellow fruits of as much as a pound; and a Yellow Stuffer that is hollow like a bell pepper.

“We’ll see how things shake out in another month or so,” Rebecca said. She and the master gardeners are already looking that far ahead in another part of the garden; on Tuesday morning they planted buckwheat as a cover crop in raised-bed plots that had held shallots and garlic. The buckwheat will be spaded under in about two and a half weeks, and then broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage will be planted a couple of weeks after that, near mid-August.

Back to the joys of July and the Tomato Day contests: One entry is allowed per person per contest, and the tomatoes must be just ripe (not mushy) on Tomato Day. There also will be contests for best fresh and best preserved salsa. For more information on the contests and Tomato Day, go to the website tinyurl.com/TomatoDay2013.