Learning what went wrong will help next year
I always take a "class picture" of my year's tomatoes. From left, the 2021 class includes, back row: Tasty Pink, Orange Oxheart, Jetsetter, Lemon Boy, First Prize, Pink Boar; front row, Juliet, Patio Choice Yellow, Brad's Atomic Grape and the prolific mystery mini cherry that was supposed to be the larger Sweet Chelsea. This was on July 28; a few varieties weren't ready for their closeup (Wine Jug, Big Beef, Chef's Choice Red and Lucid Gem).
Gardening knowledge builds from year to year. Sometimes a poor year will teach the gardener more than a successful year. (And in both cases, the results may have been despite the gardener's efforts, not because of them.)
If your 2021 tomato plants already are history, pulled out in disgust because they produced all of two tomatoes this year, maybe a quick look back will prevent history from repeating itself in the vegetable garden.
Let's tackle a few questions:
What was planted?
Anyone in the Sacramento area who envisions a garden full of Brandywine tomatoes is going to be sorely disappointed. Late-season heirlooms are notoriously finicky under the best circumstances, and our intense heat will shut them down like a kill switch on an engine. Go for early to mid-season hybrids and at least one regular-size cherry tomato, and you'll have a full harvest basket in July and August.
Where were they planted?
A container-planted tomato is going to have a tough life, and produce less, unless it was specifically bred to grow in pots. The ones with "Patio" in the title have done well, in my experience, and the "Bush" varieties do OK. Anything else? Well, good luck, but don't expect much. (This is coming from a woman with four full-size tomato plants crammed into grow pots this year. One day I'm going to learn.)
Another location issue is too much shade. Some afternoon shade is OK: With that frying summer sun of ours, "full sun" shouldn't be the same as "full sunlight." But too much shade will shut down tomatoes and other summer vegetables. They're summer vegetables for a reason.
When were the tomatoes planted?
This may be the most important question, given our changing climate. I used to plant at the end of April, and even did so this year because of work demands: One plant went in on April 28, our "Unofficial Tomato Planting Day" (and Fred Hoffman's birthday). The rest of my plants went in at various points in May, with the final in-ground tomato planted May 23.
Then, on Memorial Day, May 31, the temperature hit 106 degrees. Now, how are young tomato plants supposed to survive that? They struggle, they don't produce flowers. The temps then drop, the plants start to recover, and Boom! another heat wave hits. Pollen dries up, flowers drop off and tomatoes go dormant when it's too hot, as a survival technique. You get on a rollercoaster of those heat spikes during the summer, and the dream of a tomato harvest evaporates.
Plant earlier, and then fully expect high heat by early June. If the triple digits don't happen, no worries.
We're also going to have to factor in fire season as a regular part of our summer planning, I fear. Smoke and other air pollutants from wildfires can cause reduced fruit set, too.
How often and how much were they watered?Early on, tomato plants need water every other day or so until they're established. Then back off the water, to every third day, and when mature, deeply every fourth or fifth day. With enough mulch, the soil won't completely dry out, and the tomato plants will send down nice deep roots. Last year, I pulled one plant out at the end of the season that had at least 6 feet of roots, and probably more that I didn't see. Tomatoes need enough water, but not every day.
What fertilizer if any did they receive?This is another important issue for tomatoes. Too much nitrogen, either already in the soil or in fertilizer, produces a gorgeous green plant but not necessarily fruit. Look at it this way: The "teenage" plant is sucking up nitrogen lying around, having fun growing a lot of green stuff. But at some point you want it to reproduce (flower and make tomato babies). But if you're giving it stuff to continue being a teenager, well, heck. it will oblige you. So save the extra nitrogen for after the plant has set fruit.
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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Oct. 2
Plan to make the most of the mild weather in your garden.
* October is the best month to plant trees and shrubs.
* October also is the best time to plant perennials in our area. Add a little well-aged compost and bone meal to planting holes or beds, but hold off on other fertilizers until spring. Keep the transplants well-watered (but not wet) for the first month as they become settled.
* Now is the time to plant seeds for many flowers directly into the garden, including cornflower, nasturtium, nigella, poppy, portulaca, sweet pea and stock.
* Plant seeds for radishes, bok choy, mustard, spinach and peas.
* Plant garlic and onions.
* Set out cool-weather bedding plants, including calendula, pansy, snapdragon, primrose and viola.
* Reseed and feed the lawn. Work on bare spots.
* Dig up corms and tubers of gladioluses, dahlias and tuberous begonias after the foliage dies. Clean and store in a cool, dry place.
* Treat azaleas, gardenias and camellias with chelated iron if leaves are yellowing between the veins.
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