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Has this happened in your garden?

Wilted tomato plant
This near-dead Sungold plant still has ripening
tomatoes. (Photo courtesy Pauline

Tomato mystery: Sudden Sungold death

What happened to this Sungold?

Gardening issues can be a mystery; usually reliable varieties refuse to bear fruit -- or just die.
That's when friends come in handy. Through sharing experiences, together we can determine (maybe) what happened -- and how to avoid that problem in the future.

This summer, some Sacramento area gardeners have experienced early decline and death of Sungold and other cherry or small-size tomatoes. Or they've had little to no harvest from what are usually bountiful vines.

Instead of producing week after week, the plant just stops, calls it quits and dies -- as if it was November instead of July.

This happens with determinate varieties; those tomatoes are bred to have all their fruit at one time. It makes it easier to pick mechanically. But most cherry-size varieties are indeterminate; they keep growing vine and setting fruit until frost.

That includes Sungold, one of the most popular cherry tomatoes in America. Considered bulletproof by most gardeners, Sungold ranks among the sweetest tomatoes grown in Sacramento (it's won many local taste tests) and bears abundant fruit, even in heat.

But some Sungolds had an off year.

This report comes from Pauline Sakai, a longtime Placer County master gardener, who has a lifetime of tomato-growing experience:

"I thought maybe I was the only one having problems with my Sungold tomatoes, but two other gardeners told me that their plants were acting like they were done for the season," she writes. "I thought maybe my Sungold became a determinate and has decided to die after just a few months of production.

"My friend Gerrie said that her yellow pear tomatoes are doing the same thing; her plant is still green but no more fruit production. All my other tomatoes are fine, i.e. Better Boy, Early Girl and Big Beef.

"Do you know if this is a disease problem?" she adds. "It happened last year, also. My plant looks like it doesn't have enough water since the plant is almost dead, but I know that isn't the problem. I follow proper practices and let the plants dry out a bit between watering; my dad was a tomato farmer. Once I pick the Sungold tomatoes ready to harvest, that'll be it for the plant this season.

"I'm thinking this is a common problem among your readers who would like to know, 'what gives?' "

The disease possibilities, such as blight, could be devastating for many gardeners -- and California agriculture. But late blight, for example, needs super-humid conditions and mild temperatures; that's not what we experienced this summer.

It's likely not some form of wilt; Sungold is resistant (though not impervious) to those fungal diseases.

Most likely, it is weather related. Sacramento is on track for the most triple-digit days in its history. We've already had 22 days topping 100, as many as we usually have in a full year -- and we're just now heading into August.

So, here's the question to our readers: What's happening with your tomatoes? Have your Sungolds already thrown in the towel? How about other cherry varieties? Or full-size tomatoes?

Then we'll follow up with a snapshot of our overall Sacramento tomato health.

We may not be able to do anything about the weather, but at least we can better understand what caused this little mystery.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist for week of April 7

The warm wave coming this week will shift weeds into overdrive. Get to work!

* Weed, weed, weed! Whack them before they flower.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden is really hungry. Feed shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash. Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias. Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom. April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce and cabbage seedlings.

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