Shoots & Ladders: The Heartbreak Kids

Tending to tomatoes is a tumultuous affair

Let’s call the whole thing off, shall we? No matter how you slice it, tomatoes are tough. Every summer I’m ready to throw in the towel, swearing that the seductive fruit will never again wind up on my deck.
But that would break my heart.

So, I’m at it again, tweaking the process, and hoping this year things turn out differently.

Assuming your darling has been planted in a soil that’s rich in organic matter, watering is priority numero uno. An average tomato is 90 to 95 percent water, and tomatoes in containers are notoriously thirsty.
When rain isn’t in the picture, plan on watering your plants daily. You’ll want to give them a generous soaking to make sure the water reaches deep into the container and soaks the roots of the plants. Whenever possible, do your sprinkling in the morning (so the cooling benefits last throughout the day), but during those July and August scorchers, you may need to give them an extra shot in the evening. To control the spread of disease, it’s best for beginner gardeners to water the soil directly and avoid wetting the leaves of the plant.

Speaking of diseases, tomatoes love them. Ben Franklin—who probably had an Old City tomato patch of his own—tells us “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Once one of your love apples has come down with a plague, be it early blight or banded whiteflies, the best thing you can do to save the rest of your crop is pitch the plant in the nearest garbage can. If you can’t bring yourself to be so merciless, immediately isolate the victim from your healthy plants and snip off the affected leaves, taking care not to brush the withered yellow carnage against the healthy leaves. After that, all you can do is cross your fingers and hope to harvest a few fruits before it’s too late.

So let’s focus on prevention instead. Tomatoes require plenty of nutrients and are particularly fond of phosphorus and calcium. (Too much nitrogen will produce gorgeous foliage, but not so many tomatoes, so look for a well-balanced fertilizer.) To avoid burning the roots with your fertilizer solution, make sure your soil is thoroughly moist before applying fertilizer. Let’s face it: Not many container gardeners run around with a pH kit in their shirt pocket (in case you do, the ideal pH range is 6.0 to 6.5), so concentrate on enriching your soil naturally and regularly.

Happy Cat Organics’ tomato guru, Tim Mountz, swears by fish emulsion (his grandfather would bury a trout head with each plant) and encourages gardeners to apply fishy fertilizer or worm casting tea (available at your local organic gardening center) once a week until the plant flowers. Once flowers have set, brave souls can spray worm casting tea mixed with a dash of compost and a pinch of comfrey leaves (a plant known for its fertile fortitude) directly on the leaves, as studies indicate this concoction creates a barrier against disease.
As an added bonus, Mountz claims the odiferous fish emulsion scares away squirrels. After all the work of raising a healthy tomato, you won’t want to share.