Tomato tips -- 6-17-14

(This week we’re introducing a new photo technique to our blog. The first photo will be a picture of the wildflower as you see it in your yard or in the woods. Click on that picture and a second, extreme close-up photo will appear. Instead of one photo enlarged, you’ll get two separate photos, each taken from a ;d;,kdifferent perspective. This week’s photo is of the Yellow Wood Sorrell, also known as Oxalis stricta. To see a second, more detailed photo, click on it.)

Last week we announced that the judging of our 2014 Big Tomato Contest would be on Saturday, Aug. 9, from 8 to 11 a.m., at the historic City Market at 25 W. Church St., in the heart of Hagerstown.

In case you missed last week’s column, this is a simple contest. Growers of the largest, second-largest and third-largest tomatoes will receive $100, $50 and $25 prizes respectively.

“Largest” will be determined by weight, on a digital scale. The only restriction is that the tomatoes must be in edible condition. In other words, they can’t be soggy and half-rotten. We’re not going to cut them up, but they have to look good enough to put in a salad or a sandwich.

So how do you get your tomato in top shape? For that information, I went back to last year’s interview with our $100 winner. That was Rosetta Davis, who won the top prize with a 2-pound, 6.5 ounce Goliath tomato. (If you’re interested in what the winner looked like, check our archives for Aug. 5, 2013.)

Davis didn’t bet it all on a few plants; she put in 40 tomato plants and worked them like a commercial grower, staking them and removing the “suckers,” the small sprouts between the main stems and the outer leaves.

There’s two schools of thoughts on suckering tomato plants. One holds that the extra foliage helps the plants grow. The other, which Davis subscribes to, is that suckers provide unneeded foliage. The remove-the-suckers camp also says that fewer suckers mean larger fruit. In Davis’ case, that turned out to be true.

For fertilizer, Davis used Miracle-Gro for Tomatoes, which has an NPK of 18-18-21, which refers to the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium in the fertilizer. Then she staked the plants and as they grew, she reinforced the supports on those plants with heavy fruit and even topped her plants. A bushy, healthy-looking plant looks nice, but it doesn’t produce as much fruit.

Back in 1984, when we did a tomato contest, then-Extension Agent Larry Dell recommended stretching a wire from each end of the garden, then tying the tomato plants to that with twine. You could make that arrangement permanent, but you should shift tomatoes to a different location each year, to prevent diseases.

Dell’s advice on mulch then is still valid now. Use well-composted organic matter, so that after the harvest, you can work it in to loosen the soil and provide nutrients. Mulch, whether it’s organic matter or black plastic sheeting, also promotes a steady delivery of water to the plant. Inconsistent watering can make a shortage of calcium in the soil worse and cause blossom-end rot.

As explained by University of Maryland Extension specialists in the pamphlet “Nutrient problems and their management in tomatoes,” this is what causes blossom-end rot.

“Calcium moves into and up through the plant in the water stream. Anything that disrupts the stream as the tomato is sizing will cause a slight decrease in the Ca levels in the tomato fruit, causing blossom end rot.”

In other words, just as the fruit is reaching good size, an interruption in the flow of calcium causes the blossom end of the fruit to turn soft and brown. Pick those fruits off immediately, so the plant won’t waste energy on a fruit that is a lost cause.

The agents also note that if you have the proper amount of calcium in your soil, it’s improper watering and not lack of calcium that causes blossom-end rot.

Is there a treatment for blossom-end rot once it develops? Obviously not for infected fruits, but for the afflicted plant, some sources recommend dissolving 2 tbsp. of Epsom salts in one gallon of water and using that to water every other week. The best cure is still prevention, which means doing a soil test first and planting with the proper fertilizer.


There’s something about tossing out a healthy plant that I just hate. And so, just before the first frost last year, I brought in the baskets of geraniums that had been sitting on top of the stone pillars at the end of our driveway. I picked off the dead leaves and the spent blooms and put them on the enclosed front porch, where they could get light and I could water them easily.

By the time I was ready to set them out again, they were green and bushy. But when I put them atop those pillars, the sun roasted the leaves that had been in semi-shelter all winter. When I went to get some replacements at Good’s Greenhouse, 12816 Beck Road near Smithsburg, proprietor Susan Good told me that I should have trimmed the plants way back in March, to prompt healthy new growth. I’ll remember that, because watching the plants I’d saved burn up was like watching a small child get sunburned because I’d forgotten to use sunblock. It seems that “hardening off” flower plants by putting them outside for a few hours each day in a sheltered location is as good an idea for ornamentals as it for tomato transplants.

(Are there tomato-growing tips that have worked for you? Please share them. You may use a pseudonym or a “pen name” when you share, by e-mailing



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