Monthly Planting Guidelines
This calendar’s monthly planting guidelines are based on USDA zone 9, but they are adaptable to most zones. To find your zone, go to the National Gardening Association’s website. If your zone is 7, 8, or 9, you can safely use this guide. If your zone is 4, 5, or 6, then add a month before beginning your spring tasks and start your fall tasks a month earlier. If your zone is 10 or 11, subtract a month to your spring tasks. Your fall and winter tasks should remain the same as the original guide if you are in zones 10 or 11. These are all general guidelines. Your specific microclimate, which depends on distance to a large body of water (like gigantic lakes or oceans) and elevation, will make your zone fluctuate. Consult your local county extension office, found here, to get more detailed zone and planting guide information.
Tasks for September:
- Preserving, canning, dehydrating
- Top your plants
- Save seeds and/or swap
- Pull out diseased plants
- Continued maintenance
Preserving, canning, dehydrating
In some parts of the world, September is still prime time for harvesting tomatoes. You may even get tired of eating them fresh by now. If you haven’t already started preserving your bounty, consider doing it now.
There are a lot of different ways to preserve your tomatoes. Here are a few old favorites:
Ever since humans figured out how to safely preserve fruits, vegetables, and meats in jars, tomatoes have been a favorite target. Fresh or canned, tomatoes rule the culinary world. Can them whole, chopped, diced, stewed, crushed, sauced. You can even make them into ketchup or salsa. The list goes on and on. Technically speaking, you won’t be putting them into a “can”; you’ll use specialized strong jars to do so. These jars are available online, at your local hardware store, in thrift stores, or at garage sales. If purchased used, these jars must be not cracked or marred.
However, you’d like to can (or jar) your tomatoes, be sure to follow safe and proper preserving methods to eliminate any chance of spoilage or botulism. Be wary of online recipes for preserving unless you can verify the methods are consistent with food scientists’ recommendations. In the US, these food safety standards are published on the USDA’s website.
Drying (or dehydrating)
Tomatoes should be dipped in citric acid before dehydrating to help preserve them and kill bacteria. A useful article on various drying methods for tomatoes (and other fruits and vegetables) can be found on the USDA’s website. You’ve no doubt heard of “sun-dried” tomatoes, and that is possible. But most of the time, people don’t do this via the sun; they dry out their tomatoes using an electric appliance called a dehydrator. Useful for lots of different foods, this method can safely and quickly preserve tomatoes. You’ll need seven pounds of tomatoes to get half a pound of the finished product.
If you don’t have the patience, experience, or extra funds to purchase the required tools for canning or dehydrating, consider simply freezing your tomatoes. Remove their skins and seeds, or not—it’s your choice. Some folks don’t like to see tomato skins floating around in their soups, stews, and pasta sauces.
A quick freezer method for tomatoes is to do a rough chop, throw them by themselves (no water needed) into a large pot, and bring them to a quick boil. Add a bit of salt, stirring often. Remove from heat after a few minutes of boiling. Let cool and place the entire mass in plastic storage containers or into sealed plastic bags, preferably double-bagged to combat potential freezer burn. Be sure to label and date the contents.
Other ideas for preserving
Tomatoes are so versatile that some folks use them in jams and jellies. Tomatoes, especially green, unripe ones, lend themselves nicely to pickling. You can also slow-roast them in an oven using olive oil, herbs, salt, and pepper. Let that cool and freeze in plastic containers or double-bagged plastic bags for mid-winter use.
Top your plants
In August, pinching or pruning off suckers (new growth emanating from the crotch or junction (properly called a “node”) where a leaf meets a stem is advisable. This is because there’s not enough time left in the season for these suckers to develop flowers that will end up turning into ripe fruit. Continue pinching off these suckers.
Now is also a great time to completely top the plant above its seven-foot-tall cages. Do this only if there are no fruits developing above this mark. If it’s just green growth, give the plant a buzz cut above the cage completely (you’ll need a ladder to do this, probably). Cutting this foliage will force the plant’s energy into whatever remains below it, preferably some fruit.
Save seeds and/or swap
If you haven’t yet saved seeds from your favorite heirloom varieties, do it now (see August’s tomato guide for more information on this). And swap seeds with other gardeners. There could be seed-swap events in your local area or organize your own. The Seed Savers organization was founded on this very concept: Gardeners worldwide list their offerings in their catalog, and for a couple of dollars and the cost of a self-addressed stamped envelope, you have access to literally thousands of tomato varieties if you are a member. See its website, found here: https://exchange.seedsavers.org/.
Pull out diseased plants
If you’ve got any plants that are no longer producing or diseased, it’s best to pull them out at this time. Don’t compost diseased plants—these are best sealed in plastic bags and thrown in the trash. If you’re convinced any of your tomatoes to have a disease and you’ve ruled out pests, consider pulling the plant up whole and transporting it over to your Cooperative Extension Office for analysis. If you don’t have a local office, consider sending the plant material to a private lab for analysis. Better to know your demons to be able to fight them effectively next season.
Continued maintenance: watering, bug watch
Since fruit can still ripen in September, don’t lapse on watering and watching for bad pests. Tomatoes grown in pots will continue needing almost daily watering and weekly fertilizing. Prune your suckers and continue spraying with a weekly mix of worm casting tea and aspirin. You can relax in October.