Before tomato season comes tomato fever

Before tomato season comes tomato fever

The ripening of tomatoes—their sudden blush on a warm afternoon, pink or orange or something chartreuse-like, spreading from the bottom up, toward the stem—is not always a welcome development. Lo!

Early tomatoes ripen too early on the vine.
Photo by Chris Thompson/Defector

That photo was taken on the morning of June 25th. If you check your Tomato Time calendar, it will confirm this for you. mein my plant hardiness zone—that this is way too early to be ripening! Even among indeterminate tomatoes, the kind of plant that produces waves of tomatoes throughout the season, this is a precocious, pre-Tomato Time ripening. What you’ll also notice in this picture is that those three tomatoes are growing and ripening just above the base of the plant, on a tiny, underdeveloped branch, from what could only have been the first few buds produced by this specimen. The bottom tomato there is only about two inches above the ground. This is all wrong and terrible.

The smart and sensible thing to do when you are planting your tomato plants is to pick the first buds and then continue to pick buds for a few more weeks so that your plant can use all of its nutrients to grow big, thick and sturdy. The idea here is that a thicker, more robust plant will generally produce many more buds and will have the sturdy frame to support the fruit that grows from those buds and will have large wide highways to speed up the nutrient flow. Cutting off early buds is a very easy and very effective form of tomato care.

Being an impatient sucker and a tomato freak, I didn’t do this. As a result, two of my plants are squat, limp and underdeveloped; not coincidentally, they have pale tomatoes that ripen far too early, just above the ground, a miserable, humiliating horticultural failure.

A large, ripening tomato.
Photo by Chris Thompson/Defector

I’m going to blame some of this on the great heat wave of 2024. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warned farmers during the 2021 Northwest heat wave that climate change will make these hellish conditions more likely in the future and that appropriate measures must be taken, although most of the measures discussed have to do with protecting workers and crops from scorching and drying out. There’s not much in the literature about plants responding to unusual heat waves by rapidly going through the flowering stage before they’ve even gotten their permit to grow. On the other hand, soil temperature plays a role in germination and root security, and dry air circulation plays a role in leaf development and health, and ambient temperature plays a role in fruiting and ripening. Science tells us, confusingly, that heat speeds up ripening, but too much heat can actually slow it down. The point is, it was hotter than hell out there and now my tomatoes are ripening a whole month early. Do the math!

As a result of all this premature tomato action, even the most robust of my plants are on the weak side. A thunderstorm—in my defense, it was a truly shockingly violent thunderstorm—passed through here recently after sunset one evening, and when I checked the next morning, the devastation was paralyzing: slender branches in completely new directions, bent and in some cases visibly damaged, with handfuls of unripe fruit blown off and strewn underfoot. Days later, my tidy little garden now looks like a Civil War hospital, with amputees and disease and various improvised and clearly inadequate forms of wound treatment shockingly visible. A tomato garden that had been tended with a little more care in the early stages of development—a garden where early buds had been dutifully plucked and the plants encouraged to grow heartily, to a condition of well-muscled maturity, for flowering—would almost certainly have suffered less. After the devastation of the storm, those plants today might have just as many or more viable green tomatoes on their sturdy stems and limbs. They certainly wouldn’t be blaming me for their many gruesome injuries or laughing at me for their horribly overdeveloped tomatoes at the bottom.

Green tomatoes in different sizes.
This is more like it.Photo by Chris Thompson/Defector

It may still be wise to pluck these early shoots from the vines and throw them into the woods, and respond to the precocity of these uncontrollable rascals with a week or two of discipline and stern love, so that they can get their act together before they produce offspring. I’ve thought about it! I may still go out in a fit of rage and cut those few tomatoes loose and shoot them out into the wild, although time is a factor now. Some cultivars I have there are supposed to take 85 days from planting to harvest, and they’ve been in the ground for about half that time now. I don’t have an almanac, but I’m guessing that optimum conditions for tomato growing won’t last until October, which leaves about 90 days of season on the calendar. If I subject these misbehaving plants to a violent ritual rebirth ceremony today, I’m going to be in for a real hard time for any harvest.

I have not yet taken any corrective action, even as this point of no return approaches. First, I am tempted by the opportunity to practice the methods of measuring ripeness on these early tomatoes, even though I know that refusing to intervene would mean depriving my puny plants of the guidance that would facilitate the achievement of other, long-term and far more important growth goals. Second, and most importantly, I cannot shake the distant hope that these insanely early tomatoes will ripen into the vibrant, warm, impossibly delicious tomatoes of a well-tended vegetable garden. Even though their skins are cracking! Even though they have begun to grow and ripen before the beginning of summerand while they are dependent on parent plants that were just reaching maturity, they cannot possibly be expected to produce decent tomatoes on such a schedule. Ahsays another part of my brain, the part responsible for every Doritos purchase I’ve ever made in my life, but maybe your plants are different. Special!

Two light-colored, prematurely ripening tomatoes.
What permissive parenting does to an asshole.Photo by Chris Thompson/Defector

Tomatoes are generally easy to grow, but this is at least the sixth time I’ve had to relearn the important lesson that getting them in the ground isn’t even half the battle. Spring is a time of enthusiasm for a reawakening nature. It’s easier than ever to convince yourself to dig holes, mix soil, massage root balls, water, feed, trim, build a fence, invent the door. A heat dome is designed by a cruel universe to suck that energy right out of you by demanding that you fuss and helicopter parent your plants outside under a blazing, merciless sun, through an indefinite and brutally hard ordeal of survival.

Spring also gives you the deceptive feeling that a balanced nature, left to its own devices as much as possible, has everything completely under control. Then the first fierce heat wave of summer somehow doubles or triples the distance between your front door and your garden. Weeks later, a deformed and underdeveloped plant reminds you that nature did everything under control, but that you and it did not necessarily have a common goal. You wanted a maximum harvest of the tastiest fruit possible, but the little bastard assigned to deliver the spoils prioritized the fastest possible route to seed deposition, by collecting at least enough early fruit far down in the pest zone, with the real goal of to call to action the various bush shocks you’ve been struggling to fend off. This is how you pay me backyou sob, holding June’s vulgar anti-harvest aloft in your aching fingers as she strains herself to the bone for what you naively thought was a common goal.

Lots of young, green tomatoes.
It’s never too late to take action and get things under control.Photo by Chris Thompson/Defector

There is still time. Tomato plants will not wait forever, but the season is long, the plants are strong and resilient, and as long as conditions permit, the roots down there will drink up nutrients and shoot them up the stem like a pneumatic bank tube. My plants are skinny and shaggy and overburdened—physically overburdened, visibly struggling—with the fruits of various decisions I have left them to make, but I can still go out with the secateurs and some wire and take matters into my own hands. I have probably missed every real opportunity to direct the limbs of these boys, but I can certainly influence, if not command, where and how they direct their resources in the coming period.

Unfortunately, I also know that just like Tomato Season, there is also Tomato Fever, and I have caught it. There must be 50 or more small green tomatoes; the thought of cutting them back to any meaningful size and restarting the clock is simply unbearable. We are, to a certain extent, locked in. The plants and I may have to make it white-knuckled from here, but by God, we will reach the finish line, and fast. Tomato Season is so close now. I can literally smell it.