How much do we love tomatoes? Let me count the things we’ve done to ensure a good harvest.

There was the red plastic ground cover that was supposed to trick those vines into producing more tomatoes, but with disappointing results.

There was the year we figured we’d get a jump on the weed situation, mulched early and thickly, and as a result kept the soil temperatures close to freezing well into July with disastrous results.

Then there was another mulch mistake that ended up attracting legions of salivating slugs from neighboring townships to devour every green living thing within the garden.

It was all done for the tomatoes. Forget the beans, lettuce, squash, spinach, peas and anything else we throw in as an afterthought. Tomatoes rule. But hey, when you’re a garden writer, it’s all material. Every disaster is a learning experience. With all the mistakes we’ve experienced, you’d think that by now we’d be pretty smart about growing tomatoes.

In fact, we believe we may have cracked the tomato code, and it all boils down to one word: weather. Without good weather we’re sunk in the tomato department. Tomatoes like and need sunshine, and plenty of it.

So how’s your tomato crop coming along? If your plants are like ours they’ve probably been doing fairly well — let’s hope this year’s batch is making up for last summer’s rainy, wet and cold tomato debacle.

But every time we get two cloudy days in a row we begin to worry that it’s going to be another summer of rain and no tomatoes. Of course the weather can be credited with a lot of this year’s progress so far, but in reality there are a couple of other elements to consider when it comes to growing a hefty crop of tomatoes.

• Depending upon which type of tomato plant you’re growing — determinate (short, stocky and needing little support) or indeterminate, which includes many of the heirloom varieties, the ones that need a lot of staking and tying up — you may be wondering whether or not you should pinch back those “suckers.” Those are the the little branches that sprout out in between the main stem and branches. Indeterminate tomato plants produce lots of suckers.

“Old wives” would have said if you didn’t pinch them off you wouldn’t have any tomatoes. Although we know those old wives were mostly right about everything, they were a bit off about the tomato suckers. Leave them on and you’ll still have plenty of tomatoes. In fact you’ll have more tomatoes if you don’t pinch them off than if you do. The tomatoes will just be smaller. So the choice is yours.

• If you find the bottom ends of your tomatoes are getting a big black and sunken splotch and eventually rotting, then blossom end rot could be the problem. Not a fungus, the problem is caused by soils with inadequate amounts of calcium. And planting in soils that have not sufficiently warmed up contributes to the condition, which can also infect peppers and eggplants.

According to the Cornell University “Vegetable On-Line” Web site, even though some fruits develop the condition, all may not be lost.

For future reference, the Web site advises: “Control of blossom end rot is dependent upon maintaining adequate supplies of moisture and calcium to the developing fruits. Tomatoes should not be excessively hardened nor too succulent when set in the field. They should be planted in well-drained, adequately aerated soils. Tomatoes planted early in cold soil are likely to develop blossom end rot on the first fruits, with the severity of the disease often subsiding on fruits set later.

“Thus, planting tomatoes in warmer soils helps to alleviate the problem,” according to the Web site. “Irrigation must be sufficient to maintain a steady, even growth rate of the plants. Mulching of the soil is often helpful in maintaining adequate supplies of soil water in times of moisture stress. When cultivation is necessary, it should not be too near the plants nor too deep, so that valuable feeder roots remain uninjured and viable.

“In home gardens, shading the plants is often helpful when hot, dry winds are blowing, and soil moisture is low. Use of fertilizer low in nitrogen, but high in superphosphate, such as 4-12-4 or 5-20-5, will do much to alleviate the problem of blossom end rot. In emergency situations, foliage can be sprayed with calcium chloride solutions. However, extreme caution must be exercised, since calcium chloride can be phytotoxic if applied too frequently or in excessive amounts. Foliar treatment is not a substitute for proper treatment of the soil to maintain adequate supplies of water and calcium.”

One option to consider is Espoma’s Tomato Tone plant food formulated specifically for tomatoes. All organic and complete, the easy-to use-supplement can be turned in before planting, and used again after applied to the soil around the plants, supplying that calcium and other necessary nutrients. It can also be used for container-grown tomatoes.

For more information, visit

• Keep tomato plants tied up to prevent the fruit from coming in contact with the soil, which can promote diseases. If not tied up, tomatoes could be prey to more insects on the ground, and also could rot where they touch the dirt.

• Removing weeds promptly is important to ensure a good harvest of all vegetables. Weeds compete with plants for food and water. Pulling weeds before they go to seed will make the job even easier. Mulching pathways helps to keep down weeds and conserve moisture.

Organic mulches can later be turned under to compost and eventually enrich and improve soil texture. Consider a cover crop in the fall to help prevent soil erosion and improve soil structure over the winter months. In the spring, mow cover crops close. Cover crops can be turned under in the spring, enriching the garden soil.

• Supplemental watering throughout the growing season is necessary to keep tomato and other vegetable plants healthy and producing when rainfall doesn’t provide enough.

• Inspect plants daily to catch insect or disease problems before they can get out of control. Look under leaves and along stems for those sneaky tomato worms that can strip plants in no time at all. Hand-pick insects and drop them in a jar of water with a few drops of dish soap added.

• And finally, when it comes to picking tomatoes, do it often as they ripen. The more you pick the tomatoes, the more the plant will produce. Like all vegetable plants (and other annual plants as well, including most weeds), the plant lives to produce seeds. If you let the plant go to seed it will stop production. Keep interrupting that process and it will continue to produce.

Frequent and timely harvesting is also important for beans, squash, peas, peppers and a lot of other garden vegetables to keep production going.

If we’re lucky, we keep our heads and don’t do anything drastic or stupid. And if the weather cooperates, we’ve only got a few weeks of pulling, picking and possibly pinching before we reach that blissful goal — vine-ripened tomatoes. We’ll all do our part, and we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that the weather cooperates.

Social networking for gardeners

Facebook has some dirty competition; a new social-networking site on the Web is designed specifically to put gardeners in touch with other gardeners. DigtheDirt ( is the clever idea of Cliff Sharples, of fame, according to a favorite garden industry online newsletter.

This garden network site is a virtual “back fence,” where gardeners can share their experiences and learn from experts and novices alike.

Trees = jobs

Congress is considering a proposed reauthorization of a national tree-planting program, according to a note in a recent garden industry online newsletter. The American Nursery and Landscape Association has been lobbying hard for this program.

A report released in mid-May puts actual numbers on the potential impact of the program. Written by Dr. Alan Hodges of the University of Florida, as well as Dr. Charles Hall and Dr. Marco Palma at Texas A&M University, the report is titled “Projected Economic Impacts of the Proposed Small Business Administration Tree Planting Program.” According to the Web site item, a reauthorization of the tree-planting program (for 2011 to 2015) with full funding would:

• Provide a total output impact of $741 million over the life of the program.

• Create an employment impact of 6,418 jobs, with an average of 1,284 jobs annually.

• Provide a value-added impact, or contribution to the national gross domestic product, of $407 million over the life of the program.

• Produce more than $87 million in tax revenue for federal, state and local governments.

For more information on the report, as well as on H.R. 4509 and S. 3279, visit

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award and the Florida Magazine Association’s Silver Award of Writing Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association.