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Best wishes for a successful tomato season!

Sacramento's unofficial Tomato Planting Day arrives at last

This is what we hope all the planting and tending will lead to, right? A beautiful
harvest of tomatoes in the summer. Happy dreams! (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

Today is the second-most optimistic day in the tomato gardener's year: It's Tomato Planting Day!

It's also "Farmer Fred" Hoffman's birthday. (Happy birthday, Fred.) On his blog , his podcast and on his former radio shows, Hoffman has long aimed to establish (an unofficial) link between Sacramento-area tomato planting and his birthday.

Even with climate change threatening to derail the schedule, using today as a marker in the tomato season still makes sense -- especially in light of the weird heat/frost/rain episode we experienced earlier this month. So many eager gardeners lost tomatoes and peppers to that April 12 frost. (A moment of silence here for all those plants. Sigh.)

Thanks to the weather, most of my tomato plants are still a bit small for planting out, though I managed to get two into their loamy homes today. They were started back on what we have to agree is the most optimistic day of the season,  the day the tomato seeds go into their little pots or pods or whatever you use to grow them. That date is different for every parent of seedlings, but the feeling is identical. We all hope that this year we have tomatoes finally, finally figured out, and these little seeds will produce the best tomatoes we've ever grown.

I've been growing tomatoes for at least 30 years now, and I know well that weird stuff happens every year. But I'm optimistic, too, until proven otherwise.

So my Chef's Choice Orange hybrid, which I've grown before, and my Bobcat tomato (a determinate that's new to me but already an impressive grower) are settled into their soil. Others will join them soon. In the meantime, here are some things to watch for in the tomato garden this spring, whether your plants survived the frost, or you've replanted, or like me are just getting those first ones out. (You do have May to plant, too, but watch that weather.)

-- Do your tomatoes have signs of early blight? Sacramento doesn't normally have a problem with this fungus, since a typical spring is drier, but two rains in a week may have helped spread it.  My plants were growing outside on a covered set of shelves during the rains, but somehow a couple of my Lemon Boy tomatoes developed blotchy spots on a few lower, older leaves. Looking at the leaves with a loupe revealed early blight's signature concentric circles, as opposed to an insect infestation.

To keep the fungus from spreading, all the affected leaves were plucked off and put in the trash, not the green waste, and the plants isolated. When the weather was dry again, the plants were moved out to the warmest area of the garden to recover. I haven't seen any more spots, but I'm keeping watch. These Lemon Boy plants, incidentally, are Lemon Boy Plus, a new version of the hybrid that has an impressive collection of resistances: VFFNTASt. It is touted as sweeter than the original as well as highly resistant to tobacco mosaic virus, fusarium crown & root rot, tomato torrado virus and leaf mold. But not early blight, apparently.

-- Do your tomatoes have enough room to grow? I'm as guilty as anyone of crowding too many tomatoes into the available garden soil, but I'm getting better about spacing. Allowing space between plants reduces the chances of disease and gives the pollinators better access. I also try to put supports in early: cages and stakes, plus "anchor" stakes between cages, in case one plant gets top heavy and starts to lean. Then the anchor stake is already there to tie the cage to. You can't easily put those stakes in two months from now. I know that from experience.

-- Are there pollinator plants nearby? Bees will find your vegetable garden with some enticements. These can include herbs such as borage, chamomile and, later, African blue basil.  Flowers such as cornflowers, poppies, sweet peas and salvia also draw bees.  Later, zinnias and sunflowers will keep bringing them in, in time to pollinate the melons and squash that are being seeded now.

-- Are you watching for pests? Yes, they'll arrive before you notice, but if you catch those whiteflies or tomato hornworms early, you can prevent serious damage to your plants. Watch for spider mites when the weather turns hot. Make a habit of checking your plants often. Squirrels and birds may show up as the fruit starts to ripen, so be ready with barrier cloth or other measures. (Distraction plants such as sunflowers or loaded feeders can work in severe cases.)

-- Are you checking the weather forecast daily? Vegetable gardeners really should make a habit of looking at 10-day forecasts, which give a good idea of what your plants will have to deal with in the next week and a half. You can adjust accordingly. Fertilize during milder weather, not during a heat wave, for example. And if hot weather is expected, step up the irrigation ahead of time so plants are well hydrated and better able to handle the stress.

-- Speaking of water ... Tomatoes want to grow deep roots. They will, given good soil and proper watering, so water deeply, but less often. Five minutes a day is not going to do it. (They're not strawberries, for goodness' sake.) Once my plants are established, I water them every four or five days, but they get a really good soak. And they're mulched with straw.

So there you are, the proud tomato gardener, ever hopeful. Here's wishing you a great season and a great harvest.


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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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