WICHE: Tomatoes looking good but no fruit for the 4th

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If adequate rainfall and reasonable temperatures persist, we may be looking at a bumper crop of tomatoes.

By Jeneen Wiche

By this time last year, I had picked loads of cherry tomatoes. The hot spring worked to the advantage of ripening tomatoes by the 4th of July.

This year has played out a little differently, but the tomatoes don’t seem to mind. They look great, have generous fruit set and will be ripening soon enough.

So far the plants are remarkably free of any pest problem, brown or yellowing leaf or rotting fruit. Most are heirloom varieties. They were fertilized once at planting with fish emulsion and immediately mulched with newspaper and pine straw.

They really perked up and put on growth after a good rainfall and a little shot of fish emulsion. If adequate rainfall and reasonable temperatures persist, we may be looking at a bumper crop of tomatoes.

One other advantage I may have this year is a sampling of grafted heirloom tomatoes from Harris Seeds. I am a part of a trial to see if heirlooms grafted onto disease-resistant root stock will outperform the non-grafted. It looks really promising as I compare the two side by side in the garden. The expectation is that the grafted variety will have higher yields, so I will report on that later in the season.

Many of the problems we face are weather related – which is the one thing we cannot control – but we can control what our plants eat, so to speak. At planting time be sure to add composted organic matter and a little organic fertilizer; follow up with some sort of mulching material to moderate soil moisture and preventing soil from splashing on the foliage ,which can spread soil-borne diseases from last year on your little plant’s first day in the garden.

This year drainage in the garden is crucial because of some significant rain events and pop-up storms. Tomatoes rather like being a bit on the dry side, so sitting in water-logged soil can cause a problem. Rapid fluctuations in soil moisture is the primary cause of the most common tomato condition, known as blossom end rot (as well as being a contributor to blossom drop, leaf curl, and splitting fruit).

When plants fluctuate between too wet and too dry, a calcium deficiency develops in the plant, which then causes the blossom end of the fruit to rot. It’s quite disappointing when you grasp that first ripe tomato and discover its half rotten. You can avoid the onset of a calcium deficiency with good cultural practices, but if you do have a bout of it, there are products that you can spray on your plants that are formulated to restore the calcium level.

High heat can cause some problems for our tomatoes, as well. Daytime temperatures in the 90s typically cause plants to stop blooming. When temperatures drop back into the 80s, they will rebound. Too much nitrogen can jeopardize bloom. Nitrogen encourages leafy growth at the expense of bloom.

Use a fertilizer lower in nitrogen and higher in potassium and phosphorus during bloom time to encourage good blossom set. Fish emulsion is my choice, because it delivers small amounts of macro- and micro-nutrients.

Lack of magnesium, which aids in chlorophyll production and respiration of plants, can also delay fruit set and the best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to add composted manure to your garden every year. Healthy soil and a slow release source of nutrients do a great deal in sustaining healthy plants throughout the season.

Foliar diseases such as early and late blight, septoria leaf spot and anthracnose are foliar disease to beware. Many bacterial and fungal diseases linger in the soil from year to year, so rotating your crop (and mulching immediately) is a good defense.

Keep the garden clean and weed-free; and remove leaves as they appear infected and don’t inadvertently spread it by handling healthy plants afterwards.

In terms of insects, the best advice is a daily inspection. Early detection of aphids can be controlled by using insecticidal soap. Handpicking tomato hornworms is easy (but leave the ones with the little white sacks covering the caterpillar; these are eggs of beneficial wasps that you want in the garden). Pyrethrin- and pyrethroid-based botanical-based insecticides work on many pests, if they become more then a pick and squish maneuver.

Pick tomatoes when they are uniform in color and still firm. Don’t store them in the refrigerator or place them in a sunny window. This does not further ripening; it just makes them mealy.

Instead store tomatoes in a basket in a cool corner of the kitchen. To expedite ripening you can put them in a brown bag along with and apple.


Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to jwiche@shelbybb.netand type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.