Garden to Table: Protecting Your Tomatoes

Some strategies for getting a good crop.

Unfortunate things happen in a vegetable garden every year, yet we gardeners tend to talk about them as though they’re completely unexpected. “My cucumbers all have some horrible blight!” we exclaim in dismay, or “the damn birds ate all my raspberries!”

The sad fact is that no matter how much work we do to try to get it right in the garden, something will always come out of left field and wreak havoc. All of your zucchini plants suddenly wither and die, or one morning you find every one of your pepper seedlings neatly cut off at the stem, their leafy upper parts lying limply on the soil. What gives?

The answer, in a word, is pests. There are whole books — mountains of them — devoted to garden pests, which include everything from large animals (deer) to microbes (fungi, bacteria). Last year, there was a population explosion in the community of chipmunks that live in our stone walls, and the little varmints (yes, they’re adorable, but they’re still varmints) devoured about eighty percent of our tomato crop, foiling my plans to can tomatoes for the winter.

This year, I was determined to have plentiful tomatoes, which meant fighting not only chipmunks, but also several other critters and conditions that can bring a tomato plant to its knees. The following are some of the pests that attack tomatoes, and how I’ve been attacking them back.

Chipmunks: We got a dog. He likes chasing chipmunks. He never catches them, but he’s harassed them enough to (evidently) cause most of them to relocate.

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Tomato hornworms: Tomato hornworms, which can grow as large as your middle finger, are capable of devouring an entire tomato plant literally overnight. They mainly eat the leaves, leaving skeletal veins behind, but they also sometimes eat the tomatoes themselves. The best way for home gardeners to get rid of them is to pick them off by hand and, in one way or another, do them in. (The least disgusting way is to drop them into a jar of soapy water and try not to watch as they squirm around and eventually stop moving.) 

Because they are the exact green of tomato stems and tend to hide on the undersides of leaves, hornworms are hard to spot, but this year, a friend gave me an invaluable tip: hunt for them at night, using a black light flashlight, which turns them bright white in the darkness. I’ve removed a couple of dozen young worms so far, preventing them from doing any notable damage.

Yellowing leaves: They’re never a good sign. An online site called Tomato Bible gives seven reasons for yellowing leaves, and suggestions for addressing the problem. This year, I tried (twice) adding a tablespoon of Epsom salts to every gallon of water I gave to my plants, and perhaps it helped; Epsom salts are essentially magnesium, which the plant needs in order to absorb other essential nutrients (malnutrition is a common cause of yellowing leaves).

Tomato blight: This is one of the worst things that can happen to your tomatoes, because not only does it kill a plant in fairly short order (turning the leaves yellow, then brown, withered, and dead), but also, it’s highly contagious. To address the problem, you must first remove all affected leaves, being careful not to let them touch any healthy leaves on either the affected plant or any neighboring tomatoes, and you must discard them somewhere far from your garden — preferably somewhere in another state or country. 

This year, I tried spraying my tomatoes’ leaves with a solution designed to protect the plants from insects, bacteria, and fungi, and it kept the blight away for longer than usual (and none of my plants got whiteflies) … but since blight often starts in the soil, it’s hard to deter it forever. This is why it’s a good idea to rotate where you plant your tomatoes from year to year. It’s also why you should prune off your plants’ lower leaves, making it harder for soil-borne blight to get onto the plant. (Pruning the whole plant also helps, as it ensures proper aeration and keeps the plant from putting energy into unnecessary extra foliage.)

If  blight is all over your plant, you’re supposed to get rid of the entire thing, which I confess I find hard to do while there are tomatoes still on it. But here’s the good news: Tomatoes showing any signs of ripening can be picked, and they’ll finish ripening indoors. In fact, picking your tomatoes when they’re just starting to turn color is a good idea in general, since leaving them to fully ripen on the vine exposes them to bug, bird, and varmint attacks, and to the risk of cracking (which happens when we get a big rain after a dry spell, and the fruits start growing faster than their skins can stretch).

And if you have to pick your tomatoes really early, think fried green tomatoes!

Try these tomato recipes from Bluedot Living:

Baked Halibut With Leeks and Tomatoes

Grilled Peach and Tomato Salad With Peach Bellini Vinaigrette

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Laura D. Roosevelt
Laura D. Roosevelt
Laura D. Roosevelt is a journalist and poet who lives in West Tisbury, and is currently at work on a memoir. “When it comes to kindling, my current favorite fire starter is the dried stalks from last year’s garlic harvest.”
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