Itís mid-to-late July and the tomato plants that looked great a month or so ago arenít looking so great anymore. The plants arenít setting many/any fruit and the fruit is so much smaller than those early June beauties. Everyone knows itís possible to have a fall tomato crop in North Texas, so you decide you want to go for it. You want to be the person who gets to brag about serving fresh tomatoes with the Thanksgiving dinner. But how do you pull it off?†

Iím an optimist and always try for fall tomatoes. Iíve had great successes and Iíve had great failures. Sometimes I knew why and sometimes I didnít. Iím going to share my unscientific opinions with you in the hopes that some of my experiences may help you to that elusive goal Ė a decent fall tomato crop. So, if you are game to give it a try, here are some things that you need to consider.†

There are two schools of thought here Ė set out new plants at the end of June or in early July or carry over the spring plants into fall. If you decide to pull out the old plants, you will need to purchase plants that can stand up to the heat and still have time to produce a crop before our aver-age first freeze date of about November 15th.†

Thereís not much point in planting varieties in July that hardly have a chance to produce before the first frost. It doesnít take much of a frost to kill the foliage on tomato plants.†

Many of the garden centers and nurseries sell tomato plants for fall production beginning at the end of June. Just remember that these new plants have been raised in a greenhouse and they need to be hardened off before being set out in our blast furnace summer conditions. It would be helpful to provide some shade from the intense sun. Rigging up some shade cloth goes a long way to protecting the new plants.†

Iíve planted tomatoes in July and just had them sit there and struggle, not dying, just barely hanging on and making me feel guilty for subjecting them to such harsh conditions. New plants should be planted and tended with the same loving care as you lavished on the spring tomatoes. Donít forget to go easy on the fertilizer until your new plants begin to set fruit, otherwise, itís all leaves and no fruit.†

If you plan to carry over your spring plants, here are a few things to consider. First, what type of plants did you plant in the spring Ė determinate or indeterminate? By their very nature, determinate plants are designed to give you their harvest pretty much over the course of a couple of weeks. My experience has been they are not good candidates to produce fall tomatoes and should be removed. Your indeterminate plants continue to grow from the ends. These are the plants you should try to coax into fall.†

The next thing to consider is how much and where to cut the plants back. Some sources will tell you to cut them back to about knee high. My experience with this type of cutting back is total failure. Iíve been much more successful in cleaning up the plants, which is removing the dead leaves and cutting back the obviously dead areas of the plant. Remember that the indeterminate plants grow from the ends so if you severely cut back the plant you will cut back all of the new growth.†

Once you have cleaned up the plants you need to take good care of them. Make sure to continue to fertilize them and keep up an even watering schedule. Also try to control the insects and diseases†

that generally plague our summer gardens. With luck and cooler temperatures, your plants should begin to pro-duce again in September.†

The WeatherĖSo now you have planted new plants and/or cleaned up the ones you want to take into the fall season. What now? Hereís where things get out of your control and are pretty much up to Mother Nature. If July and August have blistering temps and no rain, itís going to be more difficult for the plants to produce fall tomatoes; they will be lucky to survive. On the other hand, if Mother Nature gives us a break, turns down the oven temperature and give us some wonderful rain-fall, it will help tremendously.†

The stars have aligned properly and your plants are looking good and starting to produce once again. Mission accomplished, right? You arenít out of the woods yet. Iíve had tomato plants loaded with green tomatoes in late October. They just needed a couple more weeks and they would start to ripen. What could go wrong? Now Mother Nature can pull one of her cruelest tricksĖan early frost. If an early frost is forecast and you feel†

certain your garden area will be impacted, you should pick the green tomatoes. Once picked, there are a number of methods for ripening green tomatoes. One caveat here is that a tomato needs to have reached a certain maturity level before it will ripen at all. Sometimes I can tell which tomatoes will ripen and sometimes I canít tell. Probably the most common method of ripening the green tomatoes is to individually wrap them in newspaper and store them in a single layer in a cardboard box. Adding a banana to the box will help hasten the ripening process. The box should be stored in a cool, slightly humid place out of direct sunlight.†

Are you game to give it a try? What do you have to lose? And if you are successful and the gardening gods smile on your patch of earth, your reward is a wonderful harvest of second (fall) season tomatoes. Good luck

Ellis County Master Gardeners have a website at www.ecmga.com. Check this website for information on gardening in Ellis County, sign up for a monthly newsletter or access other websites including Texas A&M Horticulture website. Questions for Master Gardeners will be answered with a return telephone call or email if you leave a message at 972-825-5175.