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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 March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

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

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* 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 help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* 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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