Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: The recent perils of growing tomatoes

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One of the frustrations facing many vegetable gardeners of late is ripe tomatoes splitting. Why is this happening? For much of the summer, the weather has been quite dry with total rainfall for July and August being several inches below normal. With the arrival of September, we experienced a couple of heavy downpours. As a result of rapid uptake of water, the inside of ripe tomato fruit expanded more rapidly than did the skin of the fruit and this, in turn, led to vertical splits (also called radial splitting), along the side of the mature tomato. For those of us who take seriously the fruits of our labor, there is no side-splitting humor in this outcome. When splitting is observed, harvest the fruit as soon as possible. Otherwise, such tomatoes are likely to be invaded by rot-causing fungi.

Could splitting have been prevented? Maybe ... my favorite answer to most of the questions I get. If soils can be kept evenly moist through the growing season by way of routine watering and mulching of plants, splitting is less likely. By routine watering, I mean weekly application that moistens soil to a depth of about 6 to 8 inches. That's about the equivalent of a one-inch rainfall per week.

Besides side-splitting, many tomatoes will have cracks in concentric circles at the top or stem end of the fruit. Such cracking usually develops less suddenly than vertical splitting, but is also the result of uneven moisture in the soil. Some tomato varieties are more prone to this cracking than others. My cherry-type tomato varieties are most prone to cracking. Some varieties that seem resistant to cracking include Celebrity, Early Girl, Jet Star, Juliet, Mountain Delight, Mountain Pride and Big Beef.

Another consequence of the drought conditions of July and August is blossom end rot of tomatoes. In this case, the bottom or blossom end of the tomato turns black. Despite the name, blossom end rot is not a disease. Rather, it is a physiological problem caused by a calcium deficiency in the developing fruit. While there are many factors that lead to blossom end rot, a lack of moisture is a major one. Without soil moisture, tomatoes are not able to take up calcium. Again, maintaining even soil moisture through the growing season will prevent blossom end, which also happens to affect peppers, squash and watermelon.

Growing tomatoes in the home garden can be very rewarding, although not always what it is cracked up to be, but then, maybe I'm just splitting hairs.

THE CHORES NEVER END ...                                                             -

I'm not splitting hairs when it comes to these gardening items:

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- Stop deadheading roses. In other words, let the blossoms now on the plants produce rose hips. Doing so will make the plants more frost-hardy because development of the hips signals the plants to slow growth and harden their canes in preparation for dormancy. Who knew roses were so smart?

- Edge flower borders. Edging is easier now that the ground is moist.

- Ooops! Did you forget to bring houseplants back indoors? The longer you wait, the greater becomes the difference between their outdoor locations and their eventual indoor environment. As a result, the plants struggle to adapt once indoors. Will they survive? Maybe. Often, their leaves will turn yellow or drop. Sometimes they will not recover from the sudden and dramatic change in environment. One way to assist adaptation to moving indoors is to move the plants first to an intermediate environment, such as to a sun porch or sunny basement window.

- Replenish mulches around blueberries and raspberries. Composted wood chips make good mulch, but don't pile them against the stems of the plants. No Blueberries? This is a good time to buy and plant blueberries bushes. If the purchased plant is in a pot, break up the root ball and pull apart the roots, spreading them out when setting in the planting hole. The planting hole and spread roots should be at least twice as wide as the original root ball.

- Wait until the pods of dry beans are dry and crisp before harvesting. Do you have to wait until the bean plant leaves turn brown before the bean pods dry? Maybe. Many of the pods on some of the bean varieties we grow dry before the plant leaves turn brown. On the other hand, others do not ripen until after the plants are fully matured and have dropped all their leaves. When impatient, I'll pull up the plants laden with semi-dry pods and hang them from wire strung between two posts set up in the garden. Unless it rains for 40 days and 40 nights, drying outdoors in this fashion works well as it gets the beans up and off the ground. Shell the dried pods and store the beans in glass jars (e.g. canning jars) kept in a cool, dry, and dimly lit spot. I'll put a packet of dehydrating agent in each jar to ensure the beans are kept dry. A dehydrating packet can be made by tying up a tablespoon of rice grains in a piece of cheese cloth.

- Resist the temptation to rip apples from the tree. Use a little TLC. Ripe apples will snap off easily when held in the palm of the hand and gently lifted.

- Don't cut back the branches on newly planted trees. That used to be done, supposedly, to allow the root system to grow back into balance with the shoot system of the tree. Studies have shown that this practice actually slows development of roots. Other than pruning broken or damaged branches and those rubbing against one another, leave the tree alone.

"Hey, garden guy! Will you be done with these work lists soon?" Maybe.


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