Tomatoes: Fine Print for Growing Prize Winning Plants

My tomatoes are sitting beside me in the front seat of my shiny black station wagon. We are on our way to the fall fair!


I’ve read the local Fall Fair rules and I have trimmed the stems and gathered fruits of similar size so these beauties have a real chance of winning blue ribbons.  A few minutes later it all goes wrong and I am back in the car driving home with my beautiful tomatoes still beside me.


Let’s face it.  The reason most of us have a greenhouse is to grow tomatoes. Beefstake, cherry, currant, heirloom or paste: it’s all good.


Entering the fall fair just confirms what we already know. We can grow healthy, prize-winning food in our greenhouses. And if we read the fine print we can hang our ribbons in our greenhouse for everyone to see.


The greenhouse advantage is obvious: earlier ripening means a longer season of harvest.  More heat means faster ripening in cool climates. The elimination of wind, pounding rain and hail means fruit is blemish-free. And finally, overhead shelter means less blight disease.

As August reaches its tomato peak, sharing your bounty and your knowledge with other gardeners is a bonus.  Find a fair closest to you. Labeling tomatoes tells your neighbors what varieties work for you, taste great, look great and feed your family.


Here are some tips to grow great fruit and win big this year:


Prepare to prune


Northern gardeners know there is no point allowing flowers to bloom past late August. These will ripen too late in fall and problems like mold and mildew will get the upper hand. So pick a day this month and start pruning off new flowers. And don’t forget to trim the leaves at the bottom of the plant at the same time. Removing the leaves improves air flow and plant health.



 But just a little and put more emphasis on calcium and less on nitrogen at this time of year. The first number on the fertilizer bag is nitrogen. This pushes green leaves to grow and keeps things fresh in the spring and early summer. Right now tomato growth is slowing down and the purpose of fertilizer is to ripen fruit, not grow leaves.


Look for a liquid fertilizer with calcium and micronutrients, mix it up as a liquid and spray it onto plants where it goes to work right away. I read the label and discover the liquid Orgunique blends for Orchids have Humic Acid, sulphate of potash, kelp extract and fish emulsion. There is also an organic product called Fruit & Vegetable Perfector with Calcium. I decide to combine the two products for my current crop.


In my greenhouse my soil is sandy and soil tests remind me I am short of Potassium (the third number on fertilizer bags.) I like that the Orchid fertilizer I find contains Sulphate of Potash. If your leaves are yellowing on their edges you may need a potash boost as well.


Some gardeners like to use common household items like Epsom salts (2 tablespoons Magnesium sulphate per gallon of water) to boost growth but this can trigger other problems so the jury is out on this one. Unless you have a completely man-made soil (soils bought in bags in stores) or unusually sandy soil, don’t rely on Epsom salts. Instead buy one of the many slow release specialty fertilizers sold for tomatoes to use early in the season and a different low nitrogen fertilizer with calcium to use right now.


Sandy soil loses minerals like most dogs shed hair.  Every time I water I lose minerals. I am stopping the mineral loss by boosting my CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) with Biochar but meanwhile I fertilize more often than I did when I had high clay soils. If you grow in sand or soil-less mixes this habit of August fertilizing will work for you too.


P.S. One sign of too much nitrogen is puckering dark green leaves. Avoid adding high nitrogen fertilizers in late summer.


Keep the Water Coming

August is no time to let plants dry out because this causes stress and stress causes trouble. A dry plant can’t access the minerals it needs in the soil and the result may be pests and disease. Instead of worrying about watering while you are on holiday add drip tape irrigation to soil-based growing operations.  A series of micro-nozzles works better if you grow in pots. Put the system of your choice on a timer to keep a steady flow of water coming during the summer avalanche of harvest.


Keep the Air Moving

In the heat of the day leave screen doors open, make sure the overhead vents are working and keep a fan running to boost air circulation. Good air movement, especially late in the season, keeps plants healthy and keeps the fruit coming long after your freezer is full and the canning season has exhausted you.


And finally, Read the Fine Print. If your tomatoes are perfect, you must show them off! Today I drove my tomatoes and a car full of other vegetables to the fair. They looked forward to their chance at stardom and blue ribbons.

But sadly, I was too late! I thought the cut-off was noon and I doodled around this morning picking special potatoes and the biggest squash and choosing a few kinds of tomatoes to enter.  And when I finally got there the door was locked. Judging started at 9:30 A.M and I got there at 10:30 and was turned away. I guess I missed the fine print.


It’s a bitter pill to swallow but the tomatoes are going into BLT sandwiches, bruschetta, salsa, soups, and freezer bags right now. And next year, if I grow a new batch of tomatoes and read the fine print correctly they will get their chance to win. They deserve it!


Favourite Bruschetta recipe: https://www.jocooks.com/recipes/easy-bruschetta-recipe/


Favourite Soup: (I have my own recipe but this one online looks pretty similar) https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/summer_minestrone_soup/


Fresh Salsa: I just chop my fresh roma tomatoes and mix them with onion, garlic, lime juice, herbs and hot peppers. Sometimes I salt the tomatoes first and let them drain a bit before mixing in the other ingredients.


For more great tips from Donna, visit www.donnabalzer.com.

You can also read Donna’s gardening books: No Guff Vegetable Gardening with Steven Biggs and her just released Gardener’s Gratitude Journal:  Part Diary, Part Personal Growing Guide.

Donna Balzer