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Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in The Bend, but it is nearly impossible to find good, homegrown tomatoes in August. That’s because most tomato plants in South Texas shut down in the high heat of summer.
But you can grow beautiful tomatoes in your own garden all summer long if you know how the heat affects your plants—and what you can do about it.
Nighttime Soil Temperature
It is not daytime heat that causes tomato plants to stop producing. Tomatoes can tolerate hundred-plus degree heat during the day. It is nighttime soil temperature that matters.
For tomato plants to set fruit, the nighttime soil temperature must stay between 55 and70 degrees. If the soil gets too hot at night, your plants will stop producing this luscious fruit.
The Gardener’s Secret Weapon: Native Leaf Mulch
Native leaf mulch is the ideal material to insulate your soil from the sun and to prevent the delicate topsoil from drying out in the relentless Gulf wind.
Apply native leaf mulch around the base of your plants until it is twelve inches thick. This ultra-thick layer of leaf mulch will regulate soil temperature and retain soil moisture. The soil outside your garden will bake like a clay oven in the August sun, but the soil beneath your leaf mulch will stay nice and cool, even on the hottest days and nights.
Watering with Drip Irrigation
Except for a good rain, drip irrigation is the best way to water plants. High-quality dripline (not soaker hoses, which are unreliable) will deliver a controlled flow to the root system of the plants without wasting water.
Lay the drip line beneath the ultra-thick leaf mulch in direct contact with the soil to achieve even and efficient watering. Water your tomatoes as deeply and infrequently as possible, maybe two or three times per week during August. If using a garden hose, water the soil at the feet of the plants—tomatoes don’t like wet leaves.
If possible, water your tomato plants at dusk. A late evening watering helps cool the soil from the heat of day and increases soil moisture during the critical night hours.
The Health of Your Soil
The health of your soil is the most important factor in the production of your plants.
Healthy soil grows strong plants that can take the heat of summer and still deliver excellent yields of sweet-tasting fruit. Poor soil, on the other hand, grows weak and sickly plants that shut down quickly in the heat.
To immediately improve soil health in your garden, add several pounds of pastured poultry manure around the base of your tomato plants. Mix in several handfuls of homemade wood ash (from native trees only, such as live oak or mesquite) for a boost of potassium to strengthen your plants.
Good homegrown tomatoes are hard to find in The Bend in August. But with these techniques, the best tomatoes in town will be in your own garden.