Sometimes it’s tough to tell why tomatoes take their time

Having given up my garden this year, I still found a spot to plant one tomato. I planted it a little late (third or fourth week of May), but it’s a very hardy-looking and large plant. It’s been watered and fertilized (Miracle-Gro Tomato food) regularly, but it has only two teeny little green tomatoes on it. It seems that everyone else is harvesting bushel loads of tomatoes. What did I do wrong?

— Rita

Well, I don’t have a for sure answer for you, but I can offer some possibilities. When tomatoes don’t fruit it’s usually early in the season and it’s just a question of letting the plant settle in and mature a bit. This time of year, that’s certainly not the case.

There also can be issues with the specific variety you have in the garden. Some varieties, especially some of the heirloom type tomatoes, can take forever to mature. My mom planted a “Brandywine” tomato this spring and she was starting to grumble a bit about “that worthless tomato I sold her”(!) and then it FINALLY started to set fruit. Now it’s loaded with the biggest, most beautiful tomatoes you’ve seen.

Again, I don’t think this is what’s going on with you. You should be seeing better fruiting than what you are. This late, you should be seeing more than just a couple scrawny little things.

I don’t think planting when you did is the problem either. The third or fourth week of May is plenty early to get a bumper crop. Many of the truck farmers plant that late and they get tomatoes just about as early as anyone else. Poor fruit set can be caused by poor vigor in the plant but again, this doesn’t sound like your problem. Your fertilizing sounds great and you talk about a nice big plant.

The last two things that I can come up with are either excessive shade or excessive nitrogen in the soil.

A tomato doesn’t require full, all day sun, though they’ll certainly tolerate it. A bit of shade is OK, but you want that plant to receive at least six hours a day of direct sun. The lack of light will affect fruit set as well as slow down the development of the plant. About the only thing to do if you think this may be the problem is to find a different spot in the garden to plant your tomato next spring.

Excessive nitrogen also can be the problem. Plants require nitrogen; they use it to grow. The problem is when there’s so much of it that the plant uses all of its energy growing and doesn’t have anything left to flower and fruit. I see this most commonly where people have perhaps excessively amended the soil with composts or manures.

These materials can have relatively high levels of nutrients, which is a good thing; and they are usually in a slow-release form so the effects last far longer than most chemical fertilizers (also a good thing!) that have dissipated in a month or so. The problem is that it’s just a bit too much of a good thing and the result is poor flowering and fruiting in a plant.

If this is what’s going on, there’s really not much for you to do now except wait until next spring and replant. By then the nitrogen levels should have settled down a bit and your plants will resume normal growth, development and fruiting.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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