Getting the Best Tomato Harvest – Vigilance Required
It’s been a great tomato year so far, especially after 2009. We are well into tomato roasting, tomato drying, catsup-making and BLT’s. But it’s never too late for nature to pipe up and say don’t count your chickens.
Two cases in point: Hurricanes and Hornworms.
HURRICANE /HEAVY RAIN WARNING
If you’ve had plenty of rainfall or have been irrigating your tomatoes, this does not apply to you, but if things have been dry lately and heavy rains are on the way it’s likely that you have many tomatoes that aren’t ripe enough to pick yet but are too ripe not to pick – because they’re going to crack, every last one, if they’re still on the vine when the roots get a thorough soaking.
Tomatoes that are fully mature and well-imbued with strong color will ripen off the vine because tomatoes are climateric fruits, like bananas, peaches, avocadoes and pears. They can continue to improve after picking as long as they were full grown when they left the plant. Non-climateric fruits like strawberries, melons and cherries do not have this property. With non-climaterics, what you pick is what you get no matter how long you wait.*
For tips about ripening tomatoes indoors, consult There’s More Than One Way to Ripen A Tomato, over at Margaret Roach’s A Way To Garden. I agree with most of it.
Or maybe spawn of the (too-closely) related Tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta.
Quinquemaculata has v-shaped white markings and a red horn; sexta has white diagonal stripes and a black horn. This distinction matters to somebody.
To tomato growers, not so much. Both of them are big and green and well equipped with teeth.
They eat tomato leaves and fruits and stems, also peppers and potatoes and, less commonly, eggplants. Also wild solanaceae like Deadly Nightshade which is alas not deadly to them.
And they are very cleverly camouflaged, you almost always see the damage before you see them. Then you look and look for them… in vain; you still don’t see them.
Even after they’re enormous they somehow manage to hide, so you find yourself staring at a wounded plant and reflecting that the attacking organism is about the size of a Volkswagon and you still can’t see it.
Keep trying. Hand picking is the best organic control – the only organic control after they get big and semi-immune to Bt – and once they start bulking up they can completely defoliate a good sized plant in just a few days.
Finding hornworms. It does get easier as they get bigger, for obvious reasons, but in the meantime:
1. Search at dawn and/or dusk; they don’t like sunlight and hide deep in the foliage in the heat of the day.
2. Look for the droppings, dark green to black, about the size of bb’s. Then look up.
3. I’ve heard that some gardeners go out at night with black lights. On top of everything else, they glow when thus illuminated.
*Tomato ripening note: At a farmers’ market the other day I heard a vendor explaining that he always waited to pick the tomatoes until they were fully vine ripe because they didn’t ripen off the vine as we well know from supermarket tomatoes blah blah etc.
I don’t know if he knew he was lying – and certainly didn’t ask! – but it’s been bothering me ever since. Oversimplification in the service of great local vegetables isn’t all that high on the list of vices but it does give ammo to the people who want to equate sustainability with ignorant romanticism.