If you’re a lucky home farmer, you’ll get to taste the first batch of ripe tomatoes soon. If your tomatoes are lagging, join the club. Most Western Washington gardeners still are struggling to keep tomato plants alive in July after the cool and rainy weather of early summer.
Here are the most-asked tomato growing questions from readers:
QWhy did the leaves of my tomato plant turn purple? I have successfully grown tomatoes for years and this is the first time this has happened. – R.P., Buckley
ABlame it on the cold, the wind and the wet weather. Anytime the temperature drops below 65 degrees, tomato plants shiver and suffer in silence. Next spring, invest in a blanket of agricultural fleece – sold at garden centers and home stores – and cover your young plants at night until the weather warms up in midsummer. Purple leaves also are a sign of a phosphorus deficiency because our acid soils do not release phosphorous well. Spread wood ashes around the tomato plants or use a complete fertilizer, such as Osmocote or Miracle Grow, that contains potassium.
QMy neighbor and I bought Early Girl tomatoes from the same nursery and he planted his in a container while I planted mine in the ground. His tomato plants look much better than mine. Is this because tomatoes love potting soil? Love growing in pots? He just has a green thumb? He claims he does nothing special and we use the same plant food. – J., Email
AIt’s all about the night temperature. Tomatoes grown in pots, especially black plastic pots that absorb the heat will be happier in cool climates like ours. Container-grown tomatoes also can be moved close to the house and under the eaves during rainstorms. I like to place metal tomato cages around my young plants, then wrap this support system with plastic bubble wrap leaving the top open. This creates a mini greenhouse to raise the night temperature. By midsummer I remove the plastic walls so that the growing plants can expand.
QHow often should one fertilize tomatoes? – K. Email
Tomatoes are hungry plants – but too much nitrogen plant food can encourage foliage over fruit. Organic gardeners use a liquid seaweed extract two or three times during the growing season according to the package instructions. You can also use a slow-release plant food such as Osmocote once at planting time so that the nutrients will be released all summer. A flower and vegetable plant food, such as Miracle Grow, Bonnie’s Herb and Vegetable food or Peter’s Professional plant food, will get the nutrients to hungry tomato plants quickly because they can absorb the nutrition from their leaves when these water-soluble plant foods are used. With so many options for feeding tomatoes, the most important advice is to read and follow label directions. And remember, the first number on the fertilizer label is nitrogen – and for tomatoes, that first number should not be higher than the other two numbers (potassium and phosphorous) listed on the label. The most important time to feed your tomatoes is two to three weeks after transplanting, and again once the fruit is set but before it has ripened.
Help! All my tomato plants have dark spots on the older leaves and the stems are now turning brown. I do know this is probably a blight caused by wet weather, but ... is there anything I can do to save the plants? – P.L., Longview
My sympathies for the blight upon you. You can take heroic measures and spray your plants with a copper fungicide every 7 to 10 days following label instructions and this may save the plants. Option two is to buy some potted cherry tomatoes from the garden center and enjoy fresh tomatoes grown in pots inside a greenhouse that have been protected from the cold and rain. A good tomato for our area that is resistant to leaf blight is Early Cascade.
What is the best tasting tomato that will grow in our area? I do grow the dependable Early Girl, but the flavor seems a bit flat. I heard you once on the radio talking about the tomato variety that wins blind taste tests, but of course I did not write it down. - Anonymous
The best tasting tomatoes for cool climates are the small cherry or patio tomatoes. And in blind taste tests, the yellow baby tomatoes do best. Sun Gold, Husky Gold or yellow pear tomatoes all have high sugar contents and great tomato flavor with a bonus of ripening early and growing on compact plants that do well in containers. It is not too late to invest this summer in these flavor-packed winners. A ripe tomato warm from the sun and popped directly into your mouth is one of the joys of summer gardening.Marianne Binetti is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and eight other gardening books. She has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and will answer questions at her website binettigarden.com.