Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tips for a Great Tomato Garden







If this is the year for you to grow terrific tomatoes, follow these tips:
 
Choose suitable varieties. California's Central Valley weather is most noted for its hot, dry summers. 
Lemon Boy
Good choices for this climate include Ace, Ace 55, Better Boy, Burpee VF Hybrid, Celebrity, Lemon Boy and Early Girl (all main season tomatoes).

Beefmaster



Beefmaster, Big Beef, Supersteak and Whopper (big-fruit varieties).


Viva Italia
Juliet, Roma VF, Viva Italia and San Marzano (paste tomatoes).



Sun Gold



 Patio Hybrid, Sweet 100, Sweet Million, Sun Gold and Sun Sugar (small-fruit varieties). 

All of these varieties were taste test favorites, in trials conducted by the Master Gardeners of Sacramento County and here at Hoffman Gardens. 

Heirloom tomatoes, varieties that were around before the 1950's, are gaining popularity. Although they may not have the built in disease resistance or high production of modern hybrid varieties, they make up for it...with outstanding taste! 
Among the heirloom varieties you might want to try: Brandywine, Old Brooks, Arkansas Traveler, Dad's Mug, Anna Russian, Aunt Ginny's Purple, Dr. Lyle, Dr. Neal, German, German Johnson, Mortgage Lifter, Pruden's Purple and 1884. Two good performers for me the last couple of seasons have included Striped German and Orange Jubilee.

Among my all-time favorite heirloom tomato varieties:
Kellogg's Breakfast
Dr. Wyche

Costaluto Genovese
Marianna's Peace
Zapotec Pleated



Bloody Butcher

 










Catalog seed sources include the Tomato Growers Supply Company  and Totally Tomatoes.

Using home-saved tomato seeds. If you want to save seeds of a particular tomato variety, remember that many varieties are hybrids; they may not necessarily come back with the same traits as the tomato you enjoyed last season. Open pollinated or heirloom tomato seeds are fine for saving, as long as they are grown at least 30 feet away from any other varieties.  For best results: save the seeds from tomatoes that are overly ripe; rinse off as much of the flesh and protective gelatinous coating from the seeds as is possible. Then, soak the seeds in a jar of water for a couple of days to remove the rest of the coating. The seeds will sink to the bottom, the gel will float. Discard the gel, remove the seeds and let dry on a paper towel. Then, store in an airtight container in a cool, dry location.

Start seeds in late winter. February and early March are the best months for starting tomato seeds. This will allow 8-12 weeks for the plant to get off to a good start in a warm, sunny place, such as a south or west facing window. It usually takes 7-14 days to germinate tomato seeds. To test for viable seed that you've been saving: moisten a coffee filter, and place a few seeds in the filter, with space between the seeds. Place the filter in an old yogurt container, cover it, and place in an area out of direct heat. Check every few days to see if seeds have sprouted.

Give seeds a healthy start.
Use a light, quick-draining potting mix. Commercial seed-starting potting mixes are available; or, mix your own, using 4 parts compost, 2 parts peat moss, and 1 part each of vermiculite and perlite. Any small container with drainage is OK for starting tomato seeds. Fill containers about 3/4 to the top with the potting mix. Water, let drain. Plant seeds shallow, no deeper than 1/4 of an inch. To hasten germination, use a heating pad designed for seeds, such as a propagation mat. This will warm the soil to 70-75 degrees, which tomatoes need to germinate. Keep the soil mix moist. To prevent emerging seedlings from bending too much toward the sunny window, rotate the pots a quarter turn each day. If you are using grow lights, position the seedlings about 6 inches from the light source; keep the lights on 15-18 hours a day.

Movin' on up. When two or three sets of true leaves develop on the tomato seedling, you can transplant it to a bigger pot. This is especially helpful if you started your seeds in a flat or in a small peat pot, or the young stems are bending toward the light at a sharp angle. When transplanting to a bigger pot (preferably a 4-6 inch pot, but no larger than a one gallon container), prepare the new pot the same as before. However, don't fill the pot as full. Place the tomato seedling, with as much of the original soil as possible to avoid disturbing the roots, into a 1/3 to 1/2 filled pot. Then, add moistened soil mix all along the stem, up to the bottom set of leaves. If you are growing tomato seedlings in a flat, thin them out so that there are six inches between plants. This will lessen the chance of root entanglement and damping off, a fungus disease that kills young seedlings. Help your tomatoes develop a strong stem by running an oscillating fan nearby, on low, for about 10-15 minutes a day.

Timing is everything. Acclimate any indoor-grown tomato seedlings slowly to their new outdoor home; this lessens the shock to the plant, allowing it to grow at a quicker pace. About 10 days before setting out into its permanent garden home, place out during the day in a shady or semi-shady location; bring plants in at night.
Wall O' Water
Mid-Spring is Tomato Planting Time. Plant tomato transplants when the soil has warmed enough to keep the plant actively growing. In most of California, mid-April through early May is the optimum time to set tomato plants outdoors, unprotected, in a garden area that gets full sun. If you can't wait that long, protect those tender young plants with hot caps, row covers or "Walls of Water" - plastic, cone shaped enclosures that are filled with water which collect heat during the day, slowly releasing the heat at night. One criteria for determining when to plant tomatoes outdoors: wait for the overnight low temperatures to be consistently in the 50's.

Plant deeply. Place the tomato deep into the soil, clipping off the lower leaves and leaving only the top leaves and branches exposed. This will cause more roots to develop along the stem, speeding development.

Mulch? Yep! Surrounding your tomato plants with three inches of an organic mulch beneath the plants helps moderate soil temperature, reduces water evaporation, controls weeds and helps to feed the soil as it breaks down. Some gardeners use red plastic mulch beneath their tomato plants. A couple of university studies have shown that this can produce an earlier, bigger crop of tomatoes. Other studies indicate that the reduction of light spectrum that results with the use of red plastic mulch may stress the plant into producing most of its fruit earlier in the season, with reduced production in the late season. Your call.


Stake, stake, stake. Supported tomato plants produce more fruit and are subject to fewer problems. One of the best tomato support systems that can be used repeatedly for a number of years include "cages" made from concrete reinforcement wire. A  50-foot roll of this six-inch mesh, five feet-high wire can be cut to make about a half dozen tomato cages, each with a diameter of two to three feet. The six inch mesh allows for easy access at picking time. Stake and tie the cages to the ground, with one stake on either side of the cage.

Water carefully. Tomato plants like water on a regular basis, deeply, once or twice a week. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation work best. Regularly scheduled deep watering reduces plant stress, one of the causes for that mushy, black or brown discoloration on the bottom of tomatoes, called blossom end rot.

Fertilize regularly, but sparingly. Lightly feed the plants every other week with an organic fertilizer that lists vegetables on the label; or, use a synthetic, low-dosage balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or less, for example). Use half the recommended dosage when applying the fertilizer twice as often as the suggested intervals. This light, but more frequent feeding is especially beneficial for tomato plants in containers or quick-draining raised beds, where fertilizer tends to get washed out more often.



Pick, pick, pick. Don't let the fruit overripe on the vine; pick when fully firm and red. Hand picking is also the most potent control for mature tomato worms. If using chemical products, make sure the label states that hornworms are controlled by the product. Also available for hornworm control: a bacterial insecticide containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). If you spot a tomato horn worm with a patch of white on its back, let it be. Those patches of white are the eggs of the parasitic trichogramma wasp that eventually will do the dirty work, eating away at the host tomato worm.

The Tomato Dictionary.

Determinate: Tomato plants whose vines make little or no growth once fruit is set. Most of the fruit develops at the same time. A desirable trait for those wishing to can or process their crop. 

Indeterminate: Vines keep producing new shoots, blossoms and fruit throughout the growing season. 

V: A tomato variety with this letter listed after the name is resistant or tolerant to verticillium wilt. 

F: Tolerance to fusarium wilt. 

N: Nematode resistance.

T: resistance to tobacco mosaic virus. 


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Blueberries Grow Well in Containers



At our former residence, the blueberry harvest from our six plants was outstanding; there was plenty for us, as well as the birds (note: add netting). The six southern highbush varieties that we planted there included Sharp Blue, Jubilee, South Moon, Blue Ray,  Sunshine Blue and Misty. 

That was about 10 years ago. Since then, we've moved. However, there will always be room for blueberry plants in our yard. Now, we are in the process of choosing newer or preferred blueberry varieties. Time and experience has refined our blueberry taste buds and we are developing a more functional approach to blueberry culture (that's fancy talk for saying, "We want bigger blueberries. They're easier to pick!").


The development of southern highbush blueberry varieties is a boon for Central Valley gardeners, who must cope with hot summers and low chill winters.
According to the UC Cooperative Extension, rabbiteye blueberries grow in the southeastern part of the country and thrive in hot, humid weather but are not cold hardy. Lowbush blueberries grow in the northeastern states and Canada. Northern highbush blueberries grow from Florida to Maine and the northern tier states and have a high chilling requirement that limits their adaptability.  

Southern highbush blueberry varieties have a low-chill requirement and are heat tolerant. Although they are self-pollinating, blueberry fruit set will increase and berries will be larger if two varieties are planted together. Most varieties grow 4 to 6 feet tall here. A few, such as Sunshine Blue (3'), are more compact.

A UC Master Gardener variety trial in Santa Clara found that the following varieties grew the best, produced the biggest crops, and had good to excellent flavor: ‘Reveille’, ‘Misty’, ‘Sunshine Blue’, ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Georgia Gem’ and ‘O’Neal’ (a large berry variety). Other varieties that may also work well include ‘Blue Ray’, ‘Cape Fear’, ‘North Blue’, ‘Ozark Blue’, and ‘Sharp Blue’.


Closer to home, blueberry trials and taste tests done at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center by the Sacramento County Master Gardeners produced these 2015 results:
 (X** = taste test winners)

The southern highbush blueberries will thrive in containers, as long as you keep a few basics in mind:

• Plant blueberries in a good-sized container. You can start them off in five gallon containers, but a 15-gallon or larger is preferable. At our old place, we used galvanized steel watering troughs from the local farm supply store. The best paint to use turned out to be tractor paint. Blueberries need good drainage, so be sure to drill holes in the bottom and along the lower sides. Raise the troughs an inch or so off the ground to improve drainage. Use the holes along the lower sides to run drip irrigation tubing to water the plants with in-line emitters or microsprayers.



 


• Give the blueberries acidic soil. Use a one-third mix of potting soil intended for camellias and azaleas, 1/3 peat moss or coir, and 1/3 small landscape bark, along with a handful of soil sulfur. This will give the blueberries their ideal pH growing range of 5.5-5.8.

• Blueberries need consistently moist soil, but be sure the pot has good drainage.


Blueberry flowers
• Because containers can heat up here in the summer, place them where they can get some afternoon shade.

• Feed blueberries with an organic fertilizer. Apply during the blueberry-growing season, late winter through summer.
Organic fertilizers such as blood meal, cottonseed meal, fish meal, and alfalfa meal can be applied at a rate of 1 pound per plant.

• Having several containers with different varieties will improve pollination and give you an extended harvesting season. If you want a sure choice, go with Sunshine Blue. Although a smaller shrub (about three feet tall, with small berries), it has very low winter chill requirements and tolerates higher pH soils better than other varieties.
Ripening Dates for San Joaquin Valley (source: UC ANR)


The University of California advises growers of blueberries in containers to replace the soil with fresh potting mix as well as root prune the plant every 3 to 4 years.

Pruning Blueberries. Even though most of the blueberry bushes intended for here only get about five feet tall, they would benefit from some judicious pruning. According to the American Horticulture Society book, "Pruning and Training", blueberries should be pruned in late winter, when the fruit buds are readily distinguishable. Prune back the shoots growing horizontally and any weak growth, cutting to an upright shoot or low bud. Prune out the oldest and weakest wood near the base of the plant to encourage strong new growth and remove any growth spreading out toward the ground. Cut out no more than a quarter of the bush annually.

However, as we know, all gardening is local. That pruning advice is intended as general guidelines for a nation of blueberry growers. What about the blueberry gardener here in the Central Valley?

Ed Laivo, of Four Winds Growers, has some different ideas, based on his own experience. "For our area, the southern highbush blueberry varieties are best," says Laivo. "Most advice refers to the northern highbush blueberry. The southern highbush blueberry is more tolerant of our heat and lower humidity, doesn't require as much winter chill and has been bred to be planted in the ground in full sun here."

Blueberry branches have a limited number of productive years, perhaps two or three. Laivo says to remove them after Year Two. "For major pruning, I wait until February, before the buds open," advises Laivo. "Then, I'll prune back the plant lightly after harvest to keep the plant in bounds."

Contrary to the advice in the American Horticulture Society book, Laivo says that the winter pruning can be as much as 50% of the plant. "But try to remove totally any branch that is over three years old. Those won't be very productive. By pruning those out, you'll spur new branch growth at the base."

And if a blueberry planting is in your future garden plans, Laivo says to get more than one. "Blueberries will yield a much bigger crop when paired with another variety," he says.
        
 

Laivo also advises planting blueberries in large containers, not in the ground. That way, you can give the plants the exact soil they need. "The trick is the soil mix," says Laivo. "Blueberries like a low pH around 5.5. And they like to grow in actively decomposing organic matter."



That's an important point for those who plant the southern highbush blueberries in the ground. Blueberries benefit by incorporating well-decomposed organic matter into the soil. And the best organic amendment? Compost. Blueberries are in the same family as azaleas and rhododendrons (Ericaceae); wherever those plants are thriving in your yard is probably a good location for the southern highbush blueberries.

In a year or two, your biggest concern after planting these shrubs may be: what can I do with all the fresh blueberries? You may want to invest in a vacuum sealer and a bigger freezer!


Sources for southern highbush blueberry information:
Dave Wilson Nursery