Dogwood or tomato worries? Here’s a how-to guide

Dogwoods can’t handle hot sun

Sarah in Burke writes: “Last June, I planted a Kousa dogwood in a spot that gets a lot of afternoon sun. I thought Kousas could handle sun better than other dogwoods, but it has had wilted leaves since I planted it. What can I do to save the tree — other than moving it? Please don’t make me dig another giant hole to relocate it!”

We can’t make you do anything, Sarah, but the only way that tree will thrive is if you do move it this fall or next spring to a spot that gets afternoon shade. All dogwoods, whether native or your Asian import, do best with full morning sun and afternoon shade. Planting in the opposite direction is one of the biggest causes of the exact symptoms you describe.

Just don’t move it now! The summer heat stress moving in makes this the absolute worst time of year to try and move plants. Wait until early fall to make the move, which should not be difficult with such a young tree.

Dogwood care 101: feeding & watering

Sarah in Burke continues: “Can I correct the problem with fertilizer?”

No, Sarah, “fertilizer” is not the answer. Although, like all dogwoods, yours would love to have the surrounding soil covered by an inch of milled peat moss (to make the soil acidic), covered with an inch of premium yard-waste compost, such as Maryland’s “Leaf-Gro” (to provide gentle, natural food and disease protection). But that’s compost, not composted manure.

Do not ever use chemical fertilizers — or any kind of wood or bark mulch — near dogwoods.

Sarah concludes: “And how often should I water it? And at what time of day?”

Dogwoods like very moist soil, but not one that stays sopping wet. The best way to water them (and pretty much any other tree or shrub, especially new plantings) is to water deeply at the base of the plant by letting a hose drip there for several hours in the early morning. (Morning watering is always best.) Do this once a week in normal times, twice a week during heat waves — especially if rain is scarce.

And because yours is planted in a too-hot and stressful location, twice a week every week would not be a bad idea until it gets moved.

Dogwood planting & re-planting

Sorry Sarah, but your dogwood will have to be moved this fall or next spring to an area that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.

But don’t dig another “giant hole.” Make the new planting hole wide but not deep, as dogwoods suffer greatly if any part of their trunk is underground. Make sure that the root flare of the plant is visible above the soil line when you’re done planting. (The same is true for all trees; they should never look like lollipops!)

In addition, never use wood or bark mulch under a dogwood, as wood mulches breed the kinds of diseases to which dogwoods are prone. And wood mulch piled up against the trunk of a dogwood is a death sentence.

Instead, as described above, spread an inch of milled peat moss under the plant, beginning 6 inches away from the trunk and going out as far as you can. Then cover the peat moss with an inch of yard-waste compost starting 6 inches away from the trunk.

And, as with all new plantings, water “deeply and drippily” for several hours after installation and again at least weekly anytime we don’t get an inch of rain.

Tomatoes: Big plants with little fruits

Doug in Adamstown writes: “I’m wondering if it is normal for tomato plants to be 6-feet tall already, but have few fruits on them. I put some ‘Fourth of July’ variety plants outside in Wall-o-Waters in early April in a raised bed filled with an equal mix of peat moss, garden soil and Leaf Gro compost. The plants keep growing and growing, but with few fruits. Is this due to too much nitrogen from the soil mix?”

No, Doug — although excess nitrogen (like from using horse or poultry manure) is a common cause of big plants with few fruits, there’s actually very little potential nitrogen in the mix you describe. Unless you’re holding something back (like a big load of horse manure), I think what’s going on here is lack of patience on your part and way too early planting.

Try and fight nature all you want, but “Fourth of July” is a tomato that’s going to start producing its little fruits about 50 days from planting at a reasonable time in the season. So, if you had waited until the, say, first week of June to plant, you should expect your first fruits to appear by the variety-name-implied Independence Day.

(And that could still happen for you, as the Fourth is still two and a half weeks away.)

The way ‘early tomatoes’ work

Doug in Adamstown continues: “Are the plants smart enough to just keep growing until they max out their height, and then switch over to fruiting mode?”

Pretty much yes, Doug. Although it’s more like they’re programmed to behave that way instead of having AI.

Early-season hybrid tomato varieties like “Fourth of July” are bred to grow for six to eight weeks and then put on a big flush of fruits all at once. (This makes harvesting easy for large-scale growers, for whom such hybrids were originally designed.)

But you threw a wooden shoe into the mix when you tried to rush the season by putting the plants out over a month early “with protection.” The specific protection here — the “Wall o’ Waters” you report using — are tepee-shaped structures composed of plastic modules that hold water in sections the size of one of those squeezable ice-pop things. The idea is that the sun will heat the water in those “tubes” during the day and the water will stay warm when the temp crashes at night.

But you used them at what turned out to be the start of a crazy-early heat wave, which likely overheated the young plants. And then (in your complete email to me) you report removing the “Walls” before May, which may have been right before that last cold snap we had.

These back-to-back stresses clearly didn’t kill or stunt the plants, but do seem to have set their flowering back by a week or so. I suspect you will get lots of tomatoes but maybe a little later than if you hadn’t done all that extra work.

Relax and plant at a more normal time next season and I bet you’ll get your first fruits in time to eat them with fireworks in the background.

Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at MikeMcG@PTD.net.

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