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Tomato planting time arrives

Friday - 5/6/2011, 1:04pm  ET

It's Tomato Planting Time

This past Tuesday Helen in D.C. wrote to ask, "Is it too early to set out tomato and pepper plants? I bought mine a little early, have had them inside for almost two weeks and some of them are beginning to look like they might die before I get them in the ground."

I told Helen to immediately start leaving them outside during the day and to bring them back in on any really cold nights. It's fine to buy plants early, but make sure they get daytime sunshine until planting time arrives, which it now has in D.C. The 10-day forecast says no nights are predicted to drop below the high 40s, which is the sign that safe times are here for the crops of summer.

But if you live outside the heat sink of the city, please check your own 10-day forecast and be cautious. The plants don't care about dates, just overnight temperatures. They have no sense of humor about nights below 45 degrees.

How to Plant Your Love Apples

  • Tomatoes develop auxiliary roots along their buried stem that help the plant find water and nutrients and deal with hot summer weather better. So pull off the lower leaves and place at least half of the plant below the soil line.

  • If you've been saving them, place a dozen crushed eggshells over the root ball before filling the hole to provide the essential calcium that prevents blossom end rot.

  • If you have no eggshells, buy a natural tomato food that says it contains calcium. If it's granular, apply it to the surface and then cover it with some soil or compost. Or use one of the calcium-rich specialty composts available in our area, such as Coast of Maine's Lobster Compost. Please don't use chemical fertilizer. It is the opposite of a "miracle." Those high-explosives-in-a-box really diminish the taste of a home-grown tamata.
  • Then mulch the surface with 1 or 2 inches of compost to prevent disease. THIS STEP IS ESSENTIAL. Tomatoes are disease-prone plants and need the natural disease-fighting power of compost on the surface of the soil (not mixed in. Apply it as your only mulch. Trust me on this one. You'll be happy you did.)

  • Provide good support. Patio and bush tomatoes can get by with regular cages, but the vines of big beefsteaks and heirlooms grow a dozen feet long and require large circular cages to keep the 40 pounds or 50 pounds of fruit you might have on every plant in August from rotting on the ground. That's animal fencing or concrete reinforcing wire (not chicken wire) cut in a 6-foot length and looped into a big circle. Support the cage with a metal stake or rebar driven through the sides of the cage to prevent it from tipping over when the plant is filled with fruit. The vine will loop around the inside of the cage and even the longest vines will be well contained all season.

  • One plant per cage. No cheating.

  • Leave a good foot of airflow between your cages.

  • Don't plant tomatoes in the same spot as you grew tomatoes last season.

  • Oh, and if it's going to a hot and sunny day, plant in the early evening and not early morning; otherwise the poor plants will suffer severe transplant shock.

Dandelions Don't Need to be Nuked

The website for the McLean Gardens community of homes emphasizes that the grounds are managed using IPM-Integrated Pest Management-techniques, and that chemicals will be used only as a "last resort."

…Which explains why WTOP received a record number of e-mails this week from residents expressing concern over a planned spraying of the Mclean Gardens lawns with an herbicide containing 2,4-D, a component of the notorious Vietnam-era "Agent Orange" that's been linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Lou Gehrig's Disease and is banned in at least four nations and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

The reason this "last resort" was necessary was said to be dandelions.

Ah, but there is a happy ending. The residents complained loudly. And just as we go to press on The Garden Plot, McLean has announced that the application has been canceled. Not delayed, canceled.

Our congratulations to management and the residents who spoke up. This story ends with all winners and gives our many other listeners who live in other communities with a lawn care service hope for the future. And my personal thanks as an organic advocate to the management as wel. You give this old curmudgeon hope that the springs of our children might NOT be silent after all. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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