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Knowing when it’s time: Season’s end

The last Brandywine

I took out my tomato plants this week. It’s a lot earlier than I’d normally do it, but I had my reasons (which I will discuss below). Picking the last fruits and chopping down the stems made me think about all the decisions we make as gardeners, and how a lot of the questions we Master Gardeners get are about those choices. We might get asked at this time of year, “Am I supposed to take out my tomato plants now?” Maybe with an undercurrent of “Will I get in trouble with the garden police if I do it? Or don’t do it?” but in any case with uncertainty about doing the right thing. And the disappointing answer we long-experienced garden gurus usually give to questions like that?

“Well, it depends.”

Or, even more frustratingly: “It’s up to you.”

Personally, I am perfectly capable of advising a new gardener that it’s a great idea to have a calendar with reminders of what to do when in the garden, and then adding that nothing will actually happen as scheduled. One lesson I learned early on–well, fairly early on–as a gardener was that dates don’t matter. Weather matters. Climate matters. Bugs matter. But the calendar reminders are to nudge you about tasks that should be done, or at least ones that you planned on doing when you made the schedule, not necessarily about particular days, or even weeks, on which they must be accomplished.

Let’s take those tomato plants as an example. I usually start my plants from seed indoors (I didn’t this year, because of additional travel-related uncertainty in my personal life, but let’s pretend I did). I’ve learned to start tomatoes later than I really want to, say during the first week of April rather than the last week of February, and plan to plant them outside in mid-May. But sometimes temperatures don’t cooperate, and mid-May becomes late May to early June, or sometimes I take a chance and put them in early. This year it all happened pretty much on time.

In most years, I have ripe tomatoes by early July, and the plan is to have them by the Fourth. This year? Not so much. Do I know why? Not really, though we were still having a lot of cold mornings in early summer. It wasn’t like I was growing all late producers; in fact, one of the varieties was ‘Fourth of July.’ I think it ripened one puny fruit the week after the Fourth, and then nothing else for quite a while. I had cherry tomatoes, but those don’t count. Then all of a sudden in the last week of July all the tomatoes started coming in at once, from all the plants. Glory!

Production in the first three weeks of August was pretty good, though I noticed a lot more cracking and uneven ripening than usual. Not just in the heirloom ‘Brandywine,’ where the taste makes up for the amount you have to cut away. Even the totally reliable ‘Sungold’ hybrid cherry was ripening unevenly; whether they turned orange on the plant or on my kitchen table, they had patches of green and started to go bad before those were gone. Whatever the problem was, it cleared up, but only as the plants themselves started to go downhill–nothing unusual, just fungal diseases like early blight, but I couldn’t keep up with removing affected leaves (honestly, I didn’t try much). So I arrived in late August with a row of plants full of browning leaves and disappointing fruit. In addition, I’d foolishly planted the tomatoes on the edge of my community garden plot knowing full well that my neighbor doesn’t keep up with weeding, so the cages were getting buried in vines and thistles. And I knew that I would have to travel again soon enough and wouldn’t have time to pick whatever fruit came in, or do anything with it at home.

So, it was time to remove the plants. Which also gives me a chance to seed that troublesome bed with a cover crop for the winter. In another year, with better production and a different schedule, I might have left the plants in until November.

If you’re facing decisions in the vegetable garden, here are some considerations:

I also took out all my zucchinis last week when the mosaic virus finally got to them. But the peppers are still beautiful and the okra is reaching for the sky, so summer’s not quite done.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

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