Nancy Brachey

It’s tomato-time for gardeners

Celebrity is a modern hybrid tomato with excellent resistant to disease and great for slicing.
Celebrity is a modern hybrid tomato with excellent resistant to disease and great for slicing. Observer file photo

It seemed like it took forever for tomato-time to arrive this year. Cool weather kept both the soil and air chilly deep into April. But now that we are in it at top speed, what a joy it is to do this work and anticipate the rewards.

The rewards are some of the best things a gardener can enjoy: beautiful, red tomatoes rich in flavor. For some gardeners, tomato plants are the only thing they set out in their pots or plots. But for others, tomatoes take their place among other summer crops such as squashes, melons and peppers, which are also going in the ground now.

And when things go wrong with tomatoes, nothing is more disappointing.

That is why a tomato gardener must take preventive action to ward off problems as well as keep an eagle eye on plants to catch pests and diseases early.

One of the best practices is look over plants every day. When you do this, you can spot caterpillars when young, beetles while less numerous. You can spot the first signs of leaf diseases. Do this in the morning or evening, as your time and schedule permit. Once this inspection is done and everything looks OK, you will probably leave with a good feeling about your plants.

Should you see insects, including the famous caterpillar called tomato hornworm, you can capture them. Knock beetles into a jar of soapy water. Capture the caterpillars with your fingers or the tip of a trowel.

Leaf spots may be overlooked until damage is severe. These tend to appear first on the lowest leaves. Some modern hybrids are resistant to various wilts and blights, but the heirlooms such as the beloved Brandywine tend not to be resistant and require extra-careful watching, especially in wet weather.

Moving the plants to a different spot in the vegetable bed each year helps some ward off some diseases that live in the soil from year to year, something to remember at planting time.

Watering practices also play a role in the development of diseases. Try to water the plants at ground level to avoid wetting leaves with water splashed up from the ground, carrying disease organisms. Water early in the day, so that foliage dries off quickly. Cut off any branches of the tomato plants that touch the ground, even if there is a cover of mulch.

Make a habit of looking for emerging spots that indicate leaf disease. Take off those leaves and get them out of the garden.

Probably the most widespread and alarming problem with tomatoes is something called blossom-end rot. This is not actually a disease, but a physiological reaction to calcium deficiency in the developing fruit. It shows up as a blackened spot on the base of the tomato, opposite the stem end. Uneven watering tends to be at the root of most cases, and is a good reason to put down mulch that will keep the soil from drying out too fast.

Calcium sprays can be applied once you see the problem develop. An excellent fertilizer called Tomato-Tone contains calcium that will help stave off this problem early on.

Nancy Brachey:

Ask Nancy

Q. I am keen to grow basil this summer. Can I grow it in a pot and how soon can it be planted?

A. You can have an excellent crop of basil in a pot provided you pay close attention to watering it. Potted plants dry out rapidly especially when set out in porous, clay pots. Plastic is probably better. Basil requires warm soil and air as well as full sun. You can get going on it now and through May.