Tomato woes and renovating strawberry beds

Some readers in the Hudson Valley region are already seeing tomatoes ripen on their early transplants. Those of us in the mountains are still waiting for the plants to finally start growing. Larger tomato plants will sometimes wilt during the hottest part of the day, despite the soil having plenty of moisture. This is normal and nothing to worry about. Resist the urge to keep watering them since this can lead to root rot, or it may cause them to develop a very shallow root system, requiring more watering than if left alone. Tomato roots can extend two feet deep into the soil, but the majority of them are in the upper 12 inches of soil. Be careful hoeing or tilling close to the main stem to avoid damaging shallow roots. Mulches can effectively smother most annual weeds, hoeing just serves to bring more weed seeds closer to the surface. Grass clippings, clean straw and wood shavings are good organic mulches. Sawdust is also effective, but it might “steal” some soil nitrogen as it breaks down. Dust some fertilizer on the soil surface to feed the microbes if you use sawdust.

It is not uncommon for the first few tomatoes that begin to ripen to develop a black spot on the bottom of the fruit that expands until the whole fruit rots. This is called blossom end rot, a physiological disorder that cannot be treated or prevented and not any sort of disease. Technically, it is due to a lack of calcium but that is due to a lack of roots. Your garden soil contains plenty of calcium but inadequate root system cannot absorb it. It cures itself in short order though as the root systems fully develop. It always affects only the first few, eagerly anticipated fruit of the season! The water imbalance goes away as the root system fully develops.

I am seeing lots of early blight, a fungal disease that causes tomato leaves to turn yellow at first, then brown, wither and die. It usually begins with the bottom leaves and works its way upward. You can prevent it from spreading by removing the affected leaves as they turn yellow and applying a protective fungicide to the unaffected, newer growth. You probably don’t want to spray fruit that you are about ready to harvest, so read the fungicide label to see how long you need to wait until you can harvest. Some products require only a day or two, but others, including many insecticides may require you to wait up to a week.

Tomato leaves curling up is usually not a sign of disease and is called “physiological leaf roll.” Some varieties are worse than others, but it is harmless. The other cause of curled, or distorted new growth, may be herbicide drift. If you treated your lawn or any other weeds when it was 80 degrees, the chemical can “float” invisibly for 50 feet or more and cause some really weird looking growth on tomatoes.

Strawberries season is just about over now, but if you grow several different varieties, with different days to maturity, you can stagger the harvest from mid-June to mid-July. If you can get three seasons of good yields, you are a talented gardener, as these fruit are not the easiest to keep growing due to insects, weeds, diseases and other pests. Turtles and chipmunks love these tasty morsels as do slugs. After fruiting, strawberries produce many runners so it would seem easy to just let them grow and bear fruit, but leaving the runners to overcrowd the bed results in few fruit in subsequent years.

To renovate an overgrown strawberry bed that you have finished harvesting, begin by running your lawn mower over it to cut off the leaves. Next, thin the beds to one foot wide rows by tilling the soil on either side. You need to destroy 75% of the bed to allow the remaining 25% to grow. Strawberries are heavy feeders and require a good deal of nitrogen each year. Broadcast 3 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed, on top after tilling. You can substitute 3 pounds of dry blood for an organic approach. Weed the bed as much as possible and try to keep the individual plants thinned to at least a foot apart.

Strawberry buds are formed in the fall when days are short and the plants usually require winter protection. Cover the bed with 3 inches of clean straw in November and remove it next April.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

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