Dismayed gardeners across the city are wondering what happened to their tomato crops this year.
“I just thought my green thumb turned black,” Wichitan Tina Hodge wrote in a Facebook post.
Her thumb isn’t to blame. Mother Nature is.
“It has very little to do with any particular gardener’s skills and abilities and everything to do with the particular combination of weather factors that we’ve had this year,” said Rebecca McMahon, horticulture agent for food crops at K-State Research & Extension Sedgwick County.
For starters, there was almost 13 inches of precipitation in May — or more than 5 inches above normal — said Vanessa Pearce, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.
The next problem: extreme heat.
“Tomatoes don’t set fruit when the temperature is over about 85 or 90 degrees,” McMahon said. “Most summers, we kind of bounce around a little bit. It’s been pretty unrelenting for the last . . . six to eight weeks.”
Pearce said June temperatures weren’t much higher than normal, but other factors could have made it seem hotter, such as humidity and a short acclimation period.
Through Aug. 6, there were 19 days of temperatures at 100 degrees or more compared to a dozen in a normal year.
Also, many nights didn’t get below 75 degrees.
“The overnight temperature is really important,” McMahon said.
Flowers that already sprouted on some plants then spontaneously aborted in the blistering heat, she said.
Rain fell behind normal precipitation in June and dropped further in July, but the heat remained the biggest problem.
“That heat usually hits us later, and it came on hard and fast, and it just stunts their growth,” said Tricia Holmes-Lahar, president and chairwoman of Kansas Grown!, which is at the extension service on West 21st Street.
Holmes-Lahar and McMahon said a lot of factors affect different garden plots, such as when they were planted, what varieties were planted, what dirt was used and where the gardens are located.
Some major producers haven’t been affected because they have the time and resources to work around the heat.
Still, Holmes-Lahar acknowledged that Tomato Day was lacking a huge bounty of tomatoes.
“I didn’t get a lot of negative comments,” she said. “You know, Tomato Fest has so many other things going on as well.”
Her advice for future markets is to come early, possibly even before the 7 a.m. opening.
“We have people who show up at 5:30 and get in line for some of our produce vendors.”
Experience and luck
Not everyone is suffering a dearth of tomatoes.
“Overall, it’s been a good season,” said Luke Snow, who owns and manages the Old Town Farm & Art Market with his wife, Amy.
He said there was maybe a bit of a slower start to the season, but he had a couple of farmers at his market the same day as Tomato Day across town who actually took tomatoes back home with them.
A lot of his farmers come from outside of Wichita, but Snow said even the ones in Wichita are producing well. He said he spoke with several, and the consensus is their organic and regenerative practices mitigate a lot of issues.
Pat Randleas, who previously had the Old Town market, said, “There’s some education, there’s some experience, and there’s a whole lot of luck in this business it seems like.”
She and her husband, Elzie, own Home Grown Kansas, which supplies produce to area restaurants.
Due to all the rain, she didn’t plant her tomatoes until very late.
“I bet we didn’t get them in until June — like mid-June.”
Now, they’re starting to blossom, and Randleas believes “the fall’s going to be very delightful.”
What to do
So what can you do to salvage your tomato crop this year? And is there anything you can do for next year?
“Well, my snarky response is move somewhere other than Kansas, preferably further north, but that’s maybe not helpful for the vast majority of folks,” McMahon said, laughing.
She said that “the hardcore tomato grower” might take an approach similar to a commercial grower and use high tunnels, which also are known as hoop houses, covered with shade cloth.
Joshua Molello of Strong Roots Healthy Farming in Valley Center cools down his hoop houses by opening their side curtains and watering first thing in the morning and then again during the hottest part of the day.
McMahon said a lot of people swear by blossom set spray, which can promote blossom set if the weather is a few degrees outside of the ideal range.
Even if your plants are limping along, she said if they have the ability to produce flowers, you likely can still have a fall crop.
“Tomatoes are pretty resilient.”
Make sure to keep the plants watered and as healthy as possible even if they’re not producing. Randleas also advises some patience.
“Even if the plants look like heck . . . if it cools down, they can revive and still put on fruit before the end of the season,” she said.
“There will be another opportunity in September to have great tomatoes.”
Pearce said the three-month outlook for August through October shows continued above-average temperatures and below-average rain, though there’s always a chance patterns will shift.
McMahon said it’s too late to plant new tomatoes, with the possible exception of a cherry tomato plant in a container.
“My opinion is every gardener should grow at least one cherry tomato because they are most likely to be productive when it’s hot.”
Don’t be lured
Perhaps you’ve already given up on this year and are thinking ahead to next spring. McMahon has some advice, starting with what to buy.
“Diversify your variety selections, and make sure that you’ve got a couple things that are really reliable and not just all the things that look really cool.”
She knows this from painful personal experience when she’s been lured by heirloom tomatoes and what she calls funky varieties that take a lot of days to mature and then don’t produce.
Choose varieties that mature early and are going to set flowers and ripen sooner.
“Typically, our experience has been that tomato varieties . . . that are 75 days to maturity or less are most likely to be successful and have a good crop and get fruit set before we have that spike to hot temperatures,” McMahon said.
She said to aim to plant in the last week of April or the first week of May, “But you kind of have to go with the weather in a particular season.”
McMahon said some people like to plant the second or third week of April, and she said that can work if you have time to devote to the plants and keep everything going if there are cold snaps.
Also, you’ve got to make sure your tomatoes can get six to eight hours of full sun.
Finally, know going in that there will be some tough weeks. That’s simply Kansas weather.
“In reality, almost every summer we have a spell where there’s no tomatoes,” McMahon said.
The longer it is, the more people notice, she said.
“Every season is different, so you just have to adjust your expectations a little bit.”