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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Lorene Edwards Forkner

Protection. Warm the soil with black plastic sheeting, cold frames and individual plastic cloches; some gardeners even go so far as to construct elaborate plastic houses around their entire tomato beds. Remember, these beauties would rather be in far warmer climes, anything that will serve to trap and retain heat will benefit tomatoes, unless of course its one of those dodgy devices filled with water that are just as apt to collapse and decapitate your young plants.

Pest & Disease Control. The good news is that while most of the nation has tomato hornworms to deal with, such pests are generally not a problem in our area. Should you be treated to such a truly impressive vision, dispatch the pests by picking and feeding them to the birds.

The bad news is late tomato blight, Phytophthora infestans, also spelled HEARTBREAK. This fungus creates dark brown or black spots first affecting stems and leaves and quickly spreading throughout the entire plant reducing it to a foul, gunky mess. The fungal spores present in the soil are transferred to the plant when rain or irrigation splashes the plant. A mulch and a staking method that encourages good air circulation will greatly help gardeners avoid this devastating condition.

Because these spores persist in the soil for many years it is important that you do not plant tomatoes (or other members of the Solanaceae family) in a previously infected spot. After several years of frustrating losses to blight I have had great luck with a mulch of chamomile clippings. Chamomile has many anti-fungal properties, indeed a weak chamomile tea is said to protect young seedlings from damping off.

Harvest. When frost is imminent, pick all fully developed green fruit and store in a cool but not cold room (the enzyme that ripens tomatoes stops working at temperatures below 55 F). Some people suggest wrapping tomatoes individually in newspapers to hasten ripening, as this traps the ethylene gas produced by the fruit. I find that I have better success—and fewer rotting tomatoes to clean up—when I can keep my eye on the fruit. If all goes well, the stored fruit will ripen over the following six weeks, by which time I’m thinking squash, kale and other hardy winter vegetables and summer’s warmth and bounty is but a pleasant memory. —LEF

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