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Looking back at the blast-furnace summer of 2020

What can tomato growers learn from all this?

Tomato and shade cloth
If there's one photo that sums up the 2020
growing season, it's this one: Tomato behind
shade cloth in mid-August. (Photos:
Kathy Morrison)

Warning! Today I'm going to explore a sensitive topic: The tomato-growing season of 2020.

What, you say, why remind us of all that anguish?

Well, it was a learning experience, that's for sure. Even gardeners who had good-to-great tomato seasons ran into a few bumps. (112 degrees!!!) And we all feel a little sad when we pull out that last tomato plant, but that doesn't mean we should immediately erase the season from memory.

As baseball fans like to say, wait 'til next year!

Looking ahead, the biggest concern is the increasing number of hot days. As Debbie reported Wednesday , we had a record 125 days of 90-degree (or hotter) weather. That's a full four months, folks, two weeks more than the previous record of 110 in 1984. We need to acknowledge this kind of summer heat probably is here to stay. It's no longer an aberration.

Tomato plant in a grow pot
All in all, this Big Beef was
pretty happy in its 30-gallon grow pot.

The 2021 tomato season will be different, in its own way, but here are some things I learned this year that I intend to apply in the future:

-- Prep that soil as early as possible. Run a soil test in winter on the preferred tomato location. Add nitrogen, compost and worm castings early enough that the soil is ready when planting weather is right.

-- Which reminds me: Assuming it's not pouring rain for a month -- as if! -- plant at least a few tomatoes in late March or early April. Then roll out the rest over a month. If there are heat spikes in June, which is an increasingly good bet, at least some of the tomatoes will be producing.

-- Fight spider mites early and often. Spray everything down with water, including pathways, at least every other day as the weather starts to warm up, whether or not spider mites seem to be present.  (They are, most likely.) The longer I kept them at bay, the better chance my tomato plants had to grow and produce.

-- Go after weeds early, too. My community garden plot is along a fence, and outside the fence is field and a ditch -- perfect hiding places for overwintering pests. I really need to attack the weeds along the fence early, before most of the summer garden is planted.

-- Put in even more pollinator plants. I typically have zinnias, sunflowers and an African blue basil plant near my vegetables. This year, I upped the pollinator options by adding alyssum, chamomile and fennel transplants, and I dumped an entire package of mixed basil seeds into a 2-foot spot. That basil was just for the bees and other beneficials -- I let it flower and it's still going strong. The good bugs get even more sources next year, definitely.

-- Have plenty of shade cloth on hand before the heat spikes. It was sold out in many places by July, when I realized I could use a LOT more of it. I improvised with a wrecked lace tablecloth and some towels, but shade cloth works for a reason: It's tough but permeable. It also can be rolled up and put away for next year. I even washed some of mine on delicate in the washing machine, and it came out fine.

Green Cherokee tomatoes
These are a couple of the Green Cherokee tomatoes.
Interesting, but ultimately not worth the time commitment.

-- Plant resilient varieties. Big Beef, Lemon Boy, Big Mama, Chef's Choice Orange, Juliet and First Prize all came through for me again this year. Cherokee Carbon proved it's a good every-other-year tomato. I'm still exploring varieties, but intend to plant heirlooms only as experiments, not part of the main crop. Green Cherokee was a one-and-done for me this year. Not much production, and they burst easily. Think Pink died early, which may have been a weather problem, but it's also going on the don't-bother list.

-- Grow pots can work for tomatoes. This was another experiment for me this year: Would a full-size tomato produce in a 30-gallon fabric grow pot? It took a lot of potting soil and compost to fill that pot, but the Big Beef I put in it did pretty well, considering the weather. Also, I was home all the time to keep it watered. I also mulched it heavily with straw, and surrounded it with several potted roses to keep the soil from drying out too fast.

-- Grow Better Bush again. It's by far the best container plant I've tried, and it put up with the weather beautifully. Patio Yellow was another good one in a pot. Gee, I really need to check my seed supply, before I pack everything away and the tomato memories fade completely.

If any readers would like to share what they learned in tomato gardening this year, write to Debbie and me at


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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