Garden Plot: Timing your tomatoes – and other tomato tips

Crushed eggshells provide calcium which can help ensure you\'ll get big, beautiful tomatoes. (Courtesy stanford.edu)

Editor’s note: Last chance to meet Mike this spring. On Saturday, May 5, Mike makes his final area appearance of the season to discuss “The seven secrets of successful organic gardeners” at 10 a.m. at a plant sale and fundraiser for the Moonflower Garden Club in Severna Park.

Mike McGrath, wtop.com

Timing your tamatas

If you live in the District or in one of the region’s more southern suburbs, tomato planting time can pretty much be here if you want, as your ten-day forecast shows the nighttime temperatures staying reliably in the 60s and high-50s.

But, the extended forecast also shows that some of our northern listeners still have nights in the very low-50s next week.

That’s why you should always be suspicious of firm dates for doing any kind of garden thing “in the D.C. area” – it’s just too big and climactically diverse a region to be pigeonholed like that. Instead, follow the golden rule for tomatoes and other tropical plants: Wait until May and then plant when nighttime temps are predicted to be 55 or higher for the next ten days.

Got plants in hand? Leave them out during the day and bring them back inside on chilly nights until planting time arrives.

Box plants on cold nights

What can you do if your tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other cold-sensitive crops are already in the ground and a night in the 40s, or gulp, below the 40s, is predicted?

Easy. Just place a cardboard box over top of each tender plant before the sun goes down and lift the box off early the next day. The box will trap a little warm air around the plant, and – more importantly – prevent any frost from settling on those tender leaves, a real risk when temps are low, skies are clear and winds are light.

Don’t worry about crops like lettuce, spinach, peas and broccoli. They love cool weather. But really worry about eggplant, peppers and tropical melons. They’re even more cold sensitive than tomatoes, and should be the very last plants to be installed outdoors.

Eggshells will give you a perfectly pretty bottom

Every July and August, I get dozens of emails from listeners heartbroken that “a pest or disease is making my tomatoes turn black and rotten on the bottom just as they’re getting ripe.”

This is one of the only tomato problems that is not caused by a pest or disease. It’s blossom end rot, which is a cultural problem, like opera. But unlike opera, there’s a cure for blossom end rot: adequate soil calcium, which none of you have. So:

  • Crush up the dried shells of a dozen eggs and put them in each hole at planting time.
  • Or, dissolve a dozen calcium carbonate tablets in a watering can and slowly deliver that water directly to the root zone of each of your plants.
  • Or, use a natural plant food designed and specifically labeled for tomatoes. Organic tomato foods always supply lots of calcium, while chemical plant foods

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