Like many North Coast gardeners who can't get enough tomatoes, I bought a box at a farmstand this summer.

Why not grow them? Because when it comes to actually producing tomatoes other than the cherry variety, I've struck out most years. Our summer coastal combination of mostly moderate temperatures and sometimes overcast skies can make tomato growing a hit or miss proposition.

Especially this time of year. Like several other gardeners I know, we have a mature stand of tomato plants, with lots of green, healthy foliage. Sure, there are some tomatoes there, but most are green. The ripening ones are few and far between, and precious. My goal now is to bring those to their prime. Here are some ideas to bring those green golf balls (tennis balls, if you're lucky!) to the table.

First, it's a good time to evaluate your tomato support system, and I don't mean the farmstand down the road. You can stake, fence or cage them - just make sure they aren't flopping onto the ground where slugs and pests can get to them. Keeping them off the ground also allows for better air circulation, which in turn helps to prevent disease.

To stake tomato plants, remove side shoots that are in the way of tying the main stem to the stake. Carefully tie the main stem to a strong three- to five-foot stake, sturdily pounded into the ground near the young plant. Tie the plant with strips of cloth or stretchy nursery tape. Do not use inflexible tight string or wire, as these could injure the plant. Stakes can be made of wood, metal or any other strong, straight material that can be cut into lengths.

Some gardeners drive three stakes into the ground about six inches from the young tomato plant. Then they select a strong side branch to tie to each stake. Each of the staked branches will support a load of tomato fruits.

Strong wire fencing or concrete reinforcement wire can be bent into circular tomato plant cages that are about three feet tall when they are in place. Or strong cages can be built with 1-inch by 2-inch strips of wood, screwed or nailed together in a three- or four-sided cage structure. Nurseries and farm stores also carry wire stands made for tomato plants.

Tomatoes can also be supported along wire fencing, stretched out in a straight line and fastened to sturdy posts every three or four feet. The tomato plants can be tied onto this fence with stretchy ties.

Next, consider the amount of foliage on your tomato plants. At this point - September - I've found you really don't need lots of foliage. Your goal now is to get those green tomatoes to ripen. Plus, too much foliage now can mean an onset of disease, particularly if you water overhead.

With your tomato plant freshly staked, cut any foliage within six inches of the ground. That cleans up the plant, creates air circulation and can help prevent disease.

Coastal tomato plants seem to be susceptible to several diseases, including blossom end rot - large, gray-to-black spots on the blossom ends of both green and ripening tomatoes. Blossom end rot is a physiological disease caused by imbalances in water and plant nutrients. It is not caused by fungi or bacteria and does not spread from plant to plant. It may be caused by a calcium deficiency or fluctuating moisture levels. You can maintain moisture levels by mulching plants with red or black plastic or organic materials. Also, keep the soil moisture neither too dry nor too wet. A deep watering once a week is a good system. Preserve the root system by avoiding cultivation deeper than the top inch or two.

On the other hand, the fungal disease called late blight is extremely contagious from plant to plant, and even from garden clippers to plant. It's already shown up this year in Eugene, reports the Lane County Extension Service, a month or so earlier than usual and at the beginning of the tomato harvest season. Experts say it came early because of the summer's earlier warm, humid and wet weather.

Symptoms start with irregular, greenish, water-soaked spots on the leaves, petioles and/or stems. Under cool moist conditions, the spots rapidly enlarge to form purplish black lesions. The lesions girdle the stems and leaves, killing the foliage. Cultural controls include planting healthy plant materials. Destroy volunteer tomato and potato plants. Avoid wetting the leaves when watering. Provide good air circulation to help keep the plants drier. Good garden sanitization is critical to combating late blight, so clean your garden and pruning tools and burn or bag diseased plants. Do not compost them. Before you see blight, you can control with copper sprays.

If you've managed to avoid tomato diseases, but still have green tomatoes and an impending frost, you can ripen them off the vine. Wait until the orb is light green and almost translucent in color. The interior will be yellowish and sticky and the blossom end will have a pink or reddish tint. To check for maturity, cut a green tomato in half. If the pulp filling the compartments is jelly-like, it is mature green. In immature green tomatoes, seeds are easily cut through and the jelly-like pulp has not yet developed.

To store and ripen mature green tomatoes, put them in deep straw, wrap them individually in newspaper, or just lay them in a box so that they are not touching. Check tomatoes every few days and discard any that show signs of rot. Storage temperature should range from 60 to 70 degrees. They will ripen over a period of three to four weeks.

Tomatoes will ripen satisfactorily in the dark. Sunlight is not needed, but the temperature is important.

Cathy Peterson belongs to the Clatsop County Master Gardener Association. "In the Garden" runs weekly in Coast Weekend. Please send comments and gardening news to "In the Garden", The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or online to peterson@pacifier.com

COTTAGE GROVE - All things tomato will be celebrated Sept. 17 at Territorial Seed Company's fifth annual Great Northwest Tomato Taste-Off.

Gardeners beginning to advanced will pit their best tomatoes in a competition to see whose tomato tastes the best. Last year a "Pineapple" variety took first place, while a "Brandywine Sudduth" came in second and a "Tiffen Mennonite" took third. The first place award carries with it a first prize of $500 and two nights stay at the Village Green Resort. The panel of judges includes chefs, growers, and garden experts, all who really know their tomatoes. For complete Tomato Taste-Off contest details, call (541) 942-9547.

You can see photos from last year's Great Northwest Tomato Taste-Off by going to www.territorial-seed.com

Meanwhile, you can make a weekend of your tomato doings and attend the annual Gathering of Gardeners Festival & Symposium in Cottage Grove. The event is free. Workshops, garden artists and unusual plants are on the bill. Speakers include Angela Overy, the author of "Sex in the Garden." She'll talk about "Birds, Bees and Butterflies - Stars in the Garden."

Linnea Lindberg offers a session on monarch butterfy preservation. Linda Beutler tells how to have "Clematis with Everything," while Jennifer Benner, an associate editor at Fine Gardening magazine, teaches a session on "Creating Eye-Catching Containers: Thrillers, Spillers and Spinners."

A Charity Gardener's Breakfast will be offered for $2 or two cans of food, with all proceeds going to the food bank at Community Sharing.

For more information about the festival, visit the Gathering of Gardeners Web site at www.thegatheringofgardeners.com

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