Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
July, 2011
Regional Report

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Mulching tomatoes with clean straw reduces splashing of water and prevents the spread of diseases.

Looking Forward to Tasty, Fresh Tomatoes

Despite a slow start with my tomato plants, the warm weather has made them kick it up and grow vigorously. For ease of care I've chosen to grow them in a raised cinder block garden, which allows me and my uncle to sit down and easily weed and cultivate the soil as needed.

Keeping your tomatoes healthy and vigorous requires some vigilance, especially as the hot days of summer are ahead. Insect pests will begin to find their way to plants that are stressed by uneven moisture, lack of proper nutrients, and weedy areas in and around the garden.

Tomatoes can typically run low on nitrogen in mid to late summer. You will observe yellowing of the lower leaves. If this is not remedied, the plant is more likely to contract early blight, a fungal disease that can spread rapidly. To prevent this disease, fertilize with water soluble plant food with numbers of 15-30-15 every two to three weeks depending upon the organic content in your soil. My preference is a dry organic-based fertilizer that releases nutrients slowly and over a longer period of time. It's easy to apply by scattering the granules in a circle around the plants and lightly cultivating it in and finishing up by watering in thoroughly.

Summer is also the time for diseases, so inspect plants frequently. When a tomato plant begins to develop yellow leaves, starting at the bottom and working upward, be suspicious. Look for brown spots with concentric rings throughout the yellow leaves. It could be the disease known as Alternaria solani. Insects and poor watering practices can accelerate this disease.

Carefully removing the infected leaves can reduce the spread of the disease. When watering tomatoes, avoid splashing the leaves with water as this spreads the disease spores, especially in crowded conditions. A good mulch of clean wheat straw can help reduce splashing of water. To prevent future infections, dust the foliage with sulfur and repeat as needed following rainy periods.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question is: "What are the black or brown sunken spots on the fruit?" This is very common in our region and is a result of poor watering practices and the poor uptake of calcium. Even though we are known for having plenty of calcium in our soils, irregular watering and high temperatures hinder the plant from utilizing calcium. The basic control is to water more consistently, using drip irrigation or bottom watering to soak the soil deeply and uniformly. Mulching the plants will also help keep the soil from drying out too rapidly.

Keep an eye on your tomatoes this summer and thwart problems before they get the upper hand. If the "white combine," as the farmers call a hail storm, doesn't visit my garden, the tomato crop should be good this year.

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