What can tomato growers learn from all this?
If there's one photo that sums up the 2020
growing season, it's this one: Tomato behind
shade cloth in mid-August. (Photos:
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.
All in all, this Big Beef was
pretty happy in its 30-gallon grow pot.
-- 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.
These are a couple of the Green Cherokee tomatoes.
Interesting, but ultimately not worth the time commitment.
-- 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 email@example.com.
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For week of Dec. 10:
Take advantage of these dry but crisp conditions. It’s time to get out the rake!
* Rake leaves away from storm drains and keep gutters clear.
* Fallen leaves can be used for mulch and compost. Chop up large leaves with a couple of passes with a lawn mower.
* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they’re dormant. Without their foliage, trees are easier to prune.
* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.
* Make sure to take frost precautions with new transplants and sensitive plants. Mulch, water and cover tender plants in the late afternoon to retain warmth.
* Succulent plants are at particular risk if temperatures drop below freezing. Don’t water succulents before frost; cover instead. Use cloth sheets, not plastic. Make sure to remove coverings during the day.
* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.
* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.
* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.
* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eaves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.
* Plant garlic (December's the last chance -- the ground is getting cold!) and onions for harvest in summer.
* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.
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