Growing Together: The great tomato race

Don Kinzler
Forum News Service

Gardening and bragging just don’t seem compatible. Quietly enjoying the warm sunshine while digging the soil, gently planting flowers and vegetables while listening to the birds chirp doesn’t mesh with boasting about how good we are.

There’s an exception, though. The neighborhood gardener who beats the rest of us to the first decent-sized ripe tomato deserves bragging rights, and the rest of us gladly give our kudos. After all, growing an early radish is child’s play compared to the holy grail of all vegetables: the first ripe tomato of the season.

The speed at which tomatoes grow and ripen can be hastened with the following tips.

• Tomatoes are a warm-season crop. Everything that can be done to encourage warmth of both air and soil will hasten growth and yield.

• When deciding which tomato varieties to plant, check the tag for days to maturity, which is an average indicator of the time from transplanting into the garden until first harvest. The listed days aren’t from seeding, but rather garden transplanting.

• Early tomatoes are listed as 55 to 65 days from transplanting to ripe fruit, such as Early Girl, Park’s Whopper and Better Bush. Midseason, main-crop tomatoes are 68 to 78 days as in Celebrity, Big Beef, Beefy Boy, Sheyenne, Superfantastic and Mountain Spring. Late-ripening types list maturity days of 80 to 110, which includes many Beefsteak types as well as some of the heirloom varieties.

• Combine early, midseason and late types for season-long production.

• Check tags for the terms determinate or indeterminate. Determinate types grow to a certain plant size, then ripen fruit in a concentrated time span, which is handy when desiring a larger quantity of fruit for processing or canning at one time. Growth habit is more bushlike. Indeterminate types produce vines all season, and cages or stakes are necessary for their sprawling habit. Fruit ripening is less consolidated but spread over a longer time frame.

• When shopping for tomato plants, look for rich green color and stocky stems.

• Tomatoes are best grown in full, all-day sunshine. If that’s not an option, six hours of direct sun is considered a minimum.

• Newly planted tomatoes must have warmth. Frost protection isn’t the only temperature-related issue. The roots of tomato transplants won’t grow until soil temperature reaches about 55 to 60 degrees. If planted in cold soil, tomato transplants can be permanently damaged. By May 20-25, air and soil temperatures are usually satisfactory for quick tomato plant takeoff.

• Plant a tomato or two in the warm microclimate of your home’s sunny south side for faster production.

• Soil can be warmed early in the garden using clear plastic as a soil mulch to capture the greenhouse solar heating effect. Weight the edges with soil and cut an “X” in the center at planting time. The plastic mulch can even be laid down a week or two before planting to kick-start soil warmth.

• Before planting, “harden off” tomato plants in a wind-protected area outdoors for seven days. Gradually expose to full sunshine and breeze.

• Plant tomatoes deeply because roots will form along the buried stem, making a stronger plant that’s less exposed to wind whipping. Remove lower leaves first.

• Ideal plant spacing is 24 to 36 inches apart. If cages or stakes are planned, the closer spacing can be used.

• Water-soluble “starter fertilizer” supplies nutrition for faster takeoff.

• Plants can be protected from chilly air temperatures with clear plastic bottomless jugs, hotcaps or other protective devices, such as the “Wall-O-Water” circular water-filled plastic tent.

• I’ll share one last secret. Early blossoms often drop without setting fruit when night temperatures drop below 50 or 55 degrees. A naturally occurring plant hormone called “Blossom Set,” sold by garden centers, greatly aids fruit set on early blossoms.

Fielding questions

Q: I have some black cankers or growths on a tree in my yard. What is this, and is there anything I need to do about it now? — Tom Frappier.

A: The disease is called black knot, which is caused by a fungus. It is very common on Canada red cherry, chokecherry and other members of the plum family of trees, and is very visible during the dormant season, when trees are bare of leaves.

The disease causes blackened, distorted growths along branches, and can progress throughout the tree, eventually invading large, main trunks. If left unchecked, branches eventually die beyond the point of the cancerlike growths.

Control is admittedly difficult and the disease spread can be reduced, but often not eliminated totally. To control the disease, prune out the black knots in late winter, which is the preferred time, when the disease isn’t active. Pruning during the growing season can spread the disease.

Plant pathologist Jim Walla, with Northern Tree Specialties, describes the recommendations well: “Effective pruning is best done before leaves form on the trees. The galls are easiest to find and new infections can already be happening by the time leaves are present.

“The galls should be pruned at least 4 inches below the gall, or down to the next crotch, without leaving a branch stub. The fungus is within the branch, so if you don’t prune far enough below the gall, the infection may remain.

“If the galls are left on the ground or in an area near the susceptible trees, spores can spread back to the tree. Collect all galls, place in a closed container, bury or move at least 600 feet away.”

Trees can be protected with a fungicide containing active ingredients such as captan or chlorothalonil following the label directions. Fungicides can help, but spraying alone is ineffective without proper pruning, and spraying won’t make the existing galls go away.

Q: Is it really true Epsom salts are a good fertilizer for tomatoes and other vegetables? — Teri Hall Smith, Fargo.

A: North Dakota State University, in a past summary written by horticulturist Tom Kalb, describes it well: “Many of us have a few tricks we’ve developed in growing a great garden. One trick is to put a scoop of Epsom salts into each hole when planting tomatoes. Some gardeners swear it prevents blossom end rot. It’s time to debunk that myth.

“Epsom salts don’t stop blossom end rot — it leads to more of it. Blossom end rot is caused by a deficiency of calcium. Epsom salts contain magnesium sulfate — no calcium at all.

“Adding Epsom salts to the soil may create more rot since magnesium and calcium ions compete for uptake into the plant. The more magnesium in the soil, the less chance that calcium will be absorbed.

“What can we do to prevent blossom end rot? Don’t focus on the soil. Most soils in (North Dakota) have plenty of calcium. Focus on watering. The uptake of calcium depends on the uptake of water. Irrigate regularly. Avoid the extremes of waterlogged soil and droughty soil. Mulch to maintain consistent levels of moisture in the soil. Cultivate shallowly. Don’t damage the roots of your vines. We need these roots to absorb calcium.”

Q: When is it safe to plant bare-root shrubs in Fargo? — Arielle Windham, Fargo.

A: Bare-root trees and shrubs can be planted starting in mid- to late April. Because they normally do not have leaves yet, they are not injured by the freezing temps still likely until mid-May.

Potted shrubs and trees, on the other hand, that were started in greenhouses or warmer climates and brought here in full leaf, should not be planted until the likelihood of frost is past, usually mid-May, because freezing temperatures would likely injure the leaves.

Tomato plants require both warm soil and warm air temperatures for rapid growth.
A reader wonders what causes these black growths on their tree and what they can do about it now.