Margaret Lauterbach

There are always successes and failures after summer of gardening

Margaret Lauterbach
Margaret Lauterbach

The growing season is drawing to a close, and vegetable gardeners have had some successes and some failures. Some are complaining about small tomatoes, and that is a problem I’ve seen on some varieties (not all) in my garden. Why are some tomatoes too small? It may be from stress, our high heat, insufficient water or too much nitrogen. Apparently if temperatures over 100 degree are to blame, not all varieties are equally susceptible.

My Taxi tomatoes, for example, are only slightly larger than cherry tomatoes, but they should be at least salad-sized. My Gold Medal (formerly Ruby Gold) tomatoes are huge, larger than they’ve ever been. I’m growing Red Peach tomatoes for the first time in many years, after finding a trove of self-saved seeds several years old. They should be salad-sized too (slightly smaller than a tennis ball), but are about the size of an Italian prune/plum. They still taste great, but should be larger.

Too much nitrogen on tomatoes may result in no fruit at all, just foliage. If your tomatoes are in line to receive fertilizer from the lawn, that may be enough to push them into the lush foliage, zero or at least small fruit range. In my garden, Red Brandywine, Large Red, Bread and Salt, Giant Martian Slicer, West Virginia, Clear Pink and Druzba were noticeably smaller than they should be. However, Tangerine, Opalka, Gold Medal, Cosmonaut Volkov and Tiffen Mennonite were far larger than they normally are. All large and unusually small tomatoes were planted in east-west rows, in full sun (and extreme heat), and all fertilized and watered the same.

According to some experts, the best ripening time for tomatoes is when the temperature is 70 to 75 degrees. When temperatures are higher, over 85 or 90 degrees, the coloring pigments, lycopene and carotene, cannot be produced, so tomatoes just bide their time waiting for cooler days before ripening. Tomatoes in my garden ignored expert advice and ripened when they should (per variety preference), perhaps when daily temperatures cooled at night. Then when our weather moderated, they perversely refused to ripen for a few days.

That reminded me of a story I heard about a Central American grandmother who whipped her tomato plants to make them bear more fruit. Her family was embarrassed by her actions and made her do her whipping at night. That may amuse some of us, but it’s not far from the act that even experts resort to to make plants fruit or flower, that of root pruning. Threatening the plant’s life sometimes stimulates production you wanted in the first place.

Some folks in the valley transplanted kale out in their gardens extra early, and now the plants are flowering. Kale is reportedly a biennial, but the lacinato kales such as Tuscan and Dazzling Blue kale, behave like perennials to some extent, late in summer extending branches that have tuft-like whole plants on them. I’ve been told that those “tufts” root easily, giving you a new plant for the coming winter. Like any transplant at this time of year, it probably will need to be shaded from overhead sun for a couple of days, and watered when dry.

If you didn’t plant kale and other cole crops in July or August, you could start them now, even though they’ll probably hit a pause plateau about Nov. 6, when we lose 10 hours of sunlight per day. This reduced sunshine will last until about Feb. 6, and then our vegetation resumes growth, echoing the ancient vegetation myth, “the king must die, long live the king (of vegetation).”

When the garden’s bounty begins to overwhelm, consider some delicious dishes that freeze well and use a variety of vegetables. Ratatouille, for example, uses tomatoes, squash, onions, eggplant and sweet pepper. A friend uses that as a base for winter soups, too. When you have more produce than you and friends can use, take that food to the Foodbank on TK street, just off Federal Way.

I planted 15 different varieties of kale in my raised beds, and they’re now like trees. Some have trunks about 4 inches in diameter. They’re really loaded with aphids right now, unfortunately. Not sure the Foodbank wants them, even cleaned as best I can.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.