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And after all that, no tomato crop? Some reasons why

Learning what went wrong will help next year

10 varieties of tomatoes
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.

Also, too much growth too fast (with high-nitrogen fertilizer) will attract pests to all that gangly green growth. Moderation with fertilizer is better and is healthier for the plant; organic fertilizer is better for the soil, too. I mostly use fish fertilizer.

Which tomato varieties work well here?

I'm including this because I've had good luck, whatever the weather, with these varieties over the 20-plus years I've been tomato gardening in Sacramento:  Lemon Boy (my star this year), First Prize, Jetsetter, Big Beef, Cherokee Carbon, Brandy Boy, Big Mama and my all-time favorite, Juliet. These are all hybrids, and they will be the start of my list for next year.

Tell us which tomatoes did well for you this year! We always like to hear what other gardeners are experiencing.


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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