HG: Homegrown Column October 25, 2008

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 (with 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?
Thank you very much.
— 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 when people are anxious to start picking, 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 can also 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 in the season, 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.

Most of the truck farmers plant that late (since they don’t want to risk the plants to a late frost), 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 of direct sun a day.

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 can also 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).

The problem is that it’s just a bit too much of that 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 their normal growth, development and fruiting.

I have a Rose of Sharon and some butterfly bushes that need to be transplanted. Can I do it now or should I wait until spring?
— Marla

The best time to do this is late winter into early spring.

Ideally, it would be done just before the plant starts to break dormancy. I usually tell people to plan on doing it sometime in March.

The first thing you want to do is to cut your plants back if they’re pretty big. Doing so will just make handling them a lot easier.

You then want to dig the hole in your yard where the butterfly bushes are going to go. Have the holes ready so your plants are out of the ground as little time as possible.

Next, dig as large of a soil ball around the plant as you can handle (remember, you’ll have to pick up that guy and carry it over to the new hole).

You may end up with a root ball that’s 12–18 inches or even bigger in diameter. That’s going to be a bit on the heavy side, but remember that the bigger the root ball, the better your chances of success will be.

It’s important to keep the root ball intact; don’t let it crack or break apart. It’s helpful to wrap the soil ball with burlap or an old sheet to help support it.

Get it planted in the new hole and water it in well. After that initial watering has soaked in, give it a second soaking with a solution of Fertilome Root Stimulator. It has a rooting hormone in it that helps stimulate the formation of new roots and that’s the name of the game at that point.

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


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