Today, we are all about tomatoes! We do some tomato troubleshooting with Don Shor, owner of Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis, CA. We tackle typical tomato issues: the flowers fall off (it will solve itself, unless you are loving it to death with too much nitrogen fertilizer); blight diseases (avoid overhead watering, unless it's rain-caused. In which case, prune out and discard the damaged parts); whiteflies (a forceful spray of water or neem oil); blossom end rot (deep, infrequent watering, maintaining an even soil moisture level...not too soggy, not too dry); sun scald (shade cloth); wilt problems (good luck); and, of course, tomato hornworms (scissors or snippers, Bt, Spinosad).
Every tomato needs support. The best tomato supports, and the longest lasting, are tomato cages you make yourself out of either sheets or rolls of six inch mesh concrete reinforcement wire. Those little "tomato cages" that are widely sold? They're not big enough to support a vigorously growing tomato plant...but are great for pepper plants!
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It’s all part of Episode 21 of Garden Basics with Farmer Fred. Gather a few cherry tomatoes to munch on, and give us a listen. We will do it all in under 30 minutes. Let’s go.
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Garden Basics with Farmer Fred is brought to you by smart pots the original lightweight, long lasting fabric plant container it's made in the USA visit smart pots.com slash Fred for more information and a special discount, that's smart pots.com slash Fred. Welcome to the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast. If you're just a beginning gardener or you want good gardening information well you've come to the right spot. The high hopes of springs backyard tomato grower can turn to the worries of the summer. Why are the tomato flowers falling off? How do I get rid of those pesky white flies? Why are the bottoms of my tomatoes turning brown and wrinkled? Why is the plant developing yellow leaves? What's with all the tomato cracking? it's looking sunburned, too. We have answers. Tomato head and nursery owner Don Shor tackles those issues and more And oh yeah, what to do about those tomato worms. It's all part of Episode 21 of Garden Basics with Farmer Fred. It's all about tomato troubleshooting. And we'll do it all in under 30 minutes. Let's go. Everybody loves to grow tomatoes. Everybody has problems at one point or another. What are some common tomato maladies that you might be bothered with this year? Let's talk to the king of the tomato in Yolo County By the way, Yolo County the home of tomato processing in California. The tomato King would be Don Shor owner of redwood barn Nursery in Davis, California. And Don I think after people plant their tomatoes, especially if they planted them too early and there's still some cold or wet weather involved, There may be some issues with flowers and fruiting, To start off.Don Shor :
There are often problems early in the season as the plant goes into soil. It's cold We'll talk about this frequently when we're on you know together on your program about waiting for those nights to warm up waiting for the soil to warm up, and the plant will just languish, it will kill all kinds of apparent nutrient deficiencies that are actually root damage from going into cold soil. Good news is they'll usually outgrow those problems. And if you did a little side dressing or applied a very small amount of fertilizer at the time of planting, it'll be fine. I wouldn't worry too much about that. The next thing that happens is we get rain. Invariably, at some amount in March, of course, April and even into may and those that rain doesn't do a lot in terms of watering the plants, but it does get the leaves wet. And it's not uncommon for us to start seeing some leaf diseases on the young tomato plants, two or three major ones that are common in our area. The good news is we're in an area that's dry. We're in the arid western states. I realize your podcast of course has an international audience. So we deal out here mostly with a little bit of early blight. Sometimes some bacterial leaf speck and Sometimes some late blight. And in the case of the first two pick off those leaves, the weather warms up, it gets dry. That's the end of the problem. You don't have to worry about it, it just goes away. late blight is less common, but we do run into it and sometimes it gets further into the leaf into the petiole into the stem and can kill a whole part of the plant. So that's obviously worse and that can become you know, even potentially life threatening to the plant. If we continue to have unusual late season rains, as we did, for example, in May 2019. when it rained, and rained and rained all the way through the month. You need to cut that out pretty quickly when you see it and get rid of it. Listeners east of the Mississippi you need to go to their garden center and buy a fungicide. We don't need to do that here. We know that at some point, I can promise this. It'll be warm and the humidity will be low and the problem will solve itself but if you do happen to see some rapid dieback occurring, you need to prune that out.Farmer Fred :
Okay, I have a question about flowers that fall off. Sometimes nurseries will sell you a product designed to keep the flowers on the plant, is that worth the money?Unknown Speaker :
No, says the nursery man. No, it's not worth the money. There'll be plenty of time for the flowers to set and give you plenty of fruit. If you're listening in Corvallis, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, Fort Bragg, California, those products may be the only way you get tomatoes to set. and so yes, they would be appropriate for you in that climate. They are. They're an interesting spray. It's a hormone spray that induces fruit set without pollination. Interestingly, you get basically seedless tomatoes when you do that, and in really cool climates that are just not totally suitable for tomatoes. They may be appropriate here, we'll get to the point where the blossoms will set fruit, I can guarantee it the tomatoes as you mentioned, were number one in Yolo County. Well, they're now number two, they fallen behind almonds about a year ago. This is tomato country here in the Sacramento Valley. There's no need to do special sprays or anything like that to get fruit set because the weather conditions will although they seem volatile, up and down and cold nights and hot days and all that kind of thing. We'll get the temperature range that's appropriate For the self pollination of the flowers and the fruit set, so I don't think those sprays are necessary.Farmer Fred :
Alright, let's talk about some early season pests of tomato plants and the what I've seen on my own and I'm sure that others may see it are white flies and aphids.Don Shor :
Yeah, they're, they're sucking on the leaves. And obviously stressing the plant. whiteflies can really become a problem especially late in the season. Nowadays, we get towards the end of the summer, the population can really build up, they don't harm the fruit, they don't harm the blossom so they're just weakening the plant somewhat by sucking on the juices from the leaves. In our nursery, we manage them just by vigorously rinsing them off just a very strong blast of water, focusing on the underside of the leaves and being consistent about it. Doing it every morning, three or four days in a row will knock off multiple stages of the whiteflies rather than just one quick rinse and then thinking you're done with a job, they'll rebound if you do that. But if you get out there consistently day after day for three, four or five days in a row, you can really knock down the population and manage them that way. But when people watch me do this, they say, Oh, you really mean a strong blast of water? Yeah, we're not giving them a shower, we're sending them into a hurricane, or sending them off the planet several feet away, or they will die in the wasteland of the gravel on the floor of our nursery. So it's the kind of thing you really want to get a nozzle that allow you to really give a good, strong, vigorous rinse. Then take your hand and you hold the plant and very rigorously rinse them off the leaves. If you don't want to do that, if you want to go get a spray, I would start with neem, neem oil spray. And that will smother a fair number of them and repel the adults as they come in to lay eggs. And be careful not to do that when it's above 85 or 90 degrees. But you'll find you get pretty good control with a neem spray. Next step up would be a light summer oil, some kind again, with some caution about the daytime temperatures on that.Farmer Fred :
Another problem that may develop as the season progresses is you're looking at those reddish tomatoes and well they look beautiful, they're coming along but all of a sudden, you look at the bottom of the tomato and it's turning Brown and wrinkly What's going on there?Don Shor :
blossom end rot. B-E-R we abbreviate a B-E-R It is a very just refreshing and frustrating when it happens at the bottom of the fruit, as you say gets soft and mushy and is basically the fruit is inedible at that point. First of all, some varieties are very susceptible to it. Roma is well known for being the canary in the coal mine as to a blossom end problem. blossom end rot we now know is not caused by a calcium deficiency in the soil. It's not even caused by a calcium deficiency in the plant. It appears to be closely correlated with fluctuating temperatures, cold temperatures and erratic or uneven irrigation or particularly some combination of those three things. You can make it worse by adding large amounts of certain types of fertilizers like ammonium, but the strongest correlation blossom end rot is when you get a rainy spell and you overwater the plants in May just as the fruit is Expanding, that's the fruits that is going to have blossom end rot seven or eight weeks later. So deep, careful thorough watering as infrequently as possible will generally prevent blossom end rot, except when the weather is wonky.Farmer Fred :
The goal then is even soil moisture.Don Shor :
Yeah, that's true for all your vegetables, but tomatoes in particular, most of the problems that we talk with people about early in the season that have to do with how they're watering, they're watering too shallowly and not long enough, they're running a drip system. This is a very common answer when we ask how are you watering Are you running out three times a week for five minutes, that's a coffee cup of water. So a tomato plant wants a gallon or two when you water it and as it grows, it may need three or four gallons of water. You don't have to do that very often, depending on your soil type, obviously, but a deep soaking relatively infrequently is going to be much more effective than shallow waterings that are keeping the surface too wet and never getting any any depth to them. Tomato roots go deep if they can, and they'll mine water deeper and further out if they are allowed to grow to a greater extent, but a lot of people are really really under watering them when they do.Farmer Fred :
Now there is another product that one can buy at a nursery that supposedly will solve blossom end rot, it too, is a spray. It's a calcium spray. And even though blossom end rot is due to a calcium imbalance, it may not be due to lack of calcium. Besides What good is a spray on a to a skin of a fruit?Don Shor :
Yeah, well, that's a good question. I think a lot of the research that was on blossom end rot ended up being kind of misdirected. They noticed the link with calcium, but made some assumptions about the impact of calcium on the condition you're seeing. Calcium sprays won't do any good calcium applied to the soil won't do any good. Putting a Tums tablet under the plant won't do any good. Someone's gonna recommend that to you on Facebook. I guarantee it. It's not a deficiency of calcium in the plant and maybe an imbalance near the fruit. There's some questions about whether that's even related, it just appears to be an internal metabolic physiological disorder related to erratic temperatures and erratic moisture. And here's the good news. You pick those first ones off, you throw them away. Typically as the temperatures get more of to our normal summer conditions here and you water more deeply, the problem goes away. So the next crop is usually fine and worth pointing out. You can also get blossom end rot on peppers and squash and some of the other plants in your garden. It's the same issue just water more thoroughly when you do and more carefully don't keep the plants soggy, but don't let them get drought stressed either.Farmer Fred :
Now we can't attribute blossom end rot to total operator error, although probably 90% of the problems are. there are just some tomato varieties that are more susceptible to it.Don Shor :
Yeah grown so I'll pick them out of a catalog. They'll be giant fruited ones or whatever and I'll grow them and all the first one that said good blossom end rot, I just avoid that one in the future. So if you do find a consistent problem with a particular variety I haven't noticed any pattern to it. But if you do notice a consistent problem with a particular variety, there's about 500 tomato varieties out there to choose from. And I would just move on it, there are some that appear to be more susceptible to that problem. But I would bet that's probably regional too. I wouldn't be surprised if there is greater or lesser susceptibility in different regions, wherever you're listening. There are varieties that do very well in your area. And there are varieties that don't do so well in your area mostly related to your climate. And so you want to find the ones that are locally recommended by master gardeners, the successful old timer down the street or your local nursery there where they actually grow tomatoes and know what they're talking about. And keep trying until you find the right oh 20 or 30 varieties for your backyard.Farmer Fred :
It's not uncommon for tomato gardeners to get some rather interesting surprises this time of year. Now they're pleasant surprises usually in the form of a volunteer tomato plant. If you're A curious gardener such as myself, you just might want to grow it out to see what sort of tomato develops. However, that tomato plant may be popping up in an area where you don't want it to grow. And maybe all your garden area this time of year is filled with other vegetables and fruits. There is a solution. dig it up carefully and transplant it to a large smart pot using a good quality potting soil. Place it in a sunny area, prune it back a bit, keep the soil moist, and voila, you've got mystery tomatoes later in the summer. Smart pots are the original lightweight, long lasting fabric plant container made in the USA. They're sturdy, easy draining containers that'll last for years. Smart pots are made with an easy breathing fabric. It keeps them cooler than plastic pots, you're going to have a more successful tomato growing experiment or whatever you're growing in the hot summer months. You want more information? well, visit smartpots.com slash Fred. And be sure to include that slash Fred part. that can get you a nice discount when you buy a smart pot. Smart pots are available at many Ace and true value hardware stores, local independent nurseries and email@example.com. Again, visit smart pots.com slash Fred and get yourself a smart pot, or two, or three. Hey, how would you like to win your own smart pot? from June 16 through June 30, one lucky winner can qualify to receive smart pots six foot long bed, a fabric container large enough to hold over 10 cubic feet of soil. It's 16 inches tall and 16 inches wide by about six feet long. That's enough room for a couple of tomato plants and a couple of pepper plants or maybe one fantastic display of summer flowers. We're going to award the smart pot long bed to the best comment or review about Garden Basics with Farmer Fred that you post at the podcast service where you're listening to this show. And by best comment, I don't necessarily mean the kindest comment, just the most creative comment. So when you're done listening to the show, leave a comment wherever you're listening, and you just might get yourself the smart pot six foot long bed. We'll announce the winner on the July 3 edition of the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast. Thank you. We're doing some tomato troubleshooting with Don Shor from Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis, California going through the litany of problems that might affect your tomatoes this spring and summer. And you probably know that tomatoes do best in full sun, but too much sun can be a problem. Now there are some sun related problems especially in warmer areas where your plants are getting pummeled by sun all day long. And yes, tomatoes are a full sun crop. Yeah, but there is such a thing as too much sun which can result in things like fruit cracking, or cat facing or solar yellowingDon Shor :
Sun scald is a sunburn is as simple as name to apply and it is directly on the fruit. In the case of the Sun scald, it's it's the fruit that's exposed to the western sky when it's 105 degrees, and some varieties are more susceptible than others only because some of them have better leaf canopy than others. I've never had sunburn on an ace tomato because the plant has got a nice dense canopy. It's a consistent problem on Celebrity for me when I've grown that one because the plant is a relatively unvigorous plant that produces a lot of fruit so a whole lot of that fruit is exposed to the direct afternoon sun. So there are a varietal differences once again and once you've grown in number of tomatoes, you'll find some of them are just leafy or more vigorous shade themselves a better champion does a very good job of shading itself and produces a very large amount of large fruit. And I mentioned celebrity by comparison. It's a chronic problem on that particular variety for me. So you could if you want Want to grow a particular variety that susceptible to sunburn on the fruit, figure out a way to shade it a little bit from the hot afternoon sun, maybe rig up a little structure to the west of the plant and put some 50% shade cloth that you buy from a local garden center. Another option might just be to put them where there's a little natural shade not too much, or just plant varieties that are more dense and leafy. And and you'll notice that again as with blossom end rot you'll notice a variety of differences over time will lead you away from some varieties and towards others as you slowly build this collection of your favorite varieties that does well in your particular region.Farmer Fred :
And it probably would help to to keep your pruning shears in their holster because the more leaf cover that it has, the less chance there is of sun related problems.Don Shor :
I would say pruning tomatoes is almost never necessary. And I know that that causes some controversy when we say that, but it has very little benefit. if you're taking foliage off and exposing fruit, you're definitely going to get that adverse effect of sunburn on the fruit itself. It reduces yield. Overall when you prune tomatoes, the only reason I can think of that would be a possible benefit would be in areas where late blight is a real problem. Pruning them to get more open habits so you get better air circulation that increases your risk of sunburn. So I would suggest that keeping pruning at an absolute minimum unless there's some weird training technique you've adopted that absolutely requires it. pruning is for people in Minnesota where their season begins on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day. Here we've got such a long season that we can allow the fruit to set very late in the season, we don't have to prune the vines for size control, and we'll still get plenty of ripe fruit.Farmer Fred :
There are some yellowing issues with the leaves on with some diseases. In fact, if you buy a tomato plant, you may see letters next to the name of the tomato like V F or N or T or A for that matter, but the V and the f are two problems that can cause a plant to turn yellow. Then that would be verticillium and Fusarium.Don Shor :
Yeah, those are two problems in our area where we have these are soil borne diseases, so they may be in your area if your homes were built on old agricultural soil, or if you bring in soil, inadvertently bringing in the disease with it. One of the reasons I've always been concerned about people getting tomato plants from their fellow backyard gardeners who started the seeds themselves. A lot of home gardeners like to use dirt, use compost from their own yard as they as they grow them. Unfortunately, that can be a source of contamination into your yard. So it would be best if all the gardeners out there who are sharing transplants use packaged soils rather than home made garden soils. If you get them it's a real problem. verticillium and Fusarium are very challenging to eliminate impossible basically to eliminate and even the rotation practices that we all recommend that special three year rotation of only Nightshade plants in this area and then no Nightshade plants in this area Nightshade families, what I'm referring to is That's only marginally effective. So your best bet if you have a problem with verticillium fusarium or nematodes is to look for that V F N on the label. new hybrids, modern hybrids that have verticillium fusarium and nematode tolerance built into them. champion is a good example. But there's a lot of others out there. And that's that's why you see that on the labels and East Coast gardeners are now seeing more and more varieties with late blight resistance, which is a nice kind of new wrinkle in the breeding drought directionFarmer Fred :
and the letters T and A refer to a tobacco mosaic virus and Alternaria. And, yeah, as far as tobacco mosaic virus, don't smoke around your plants.Don Shor :
Yeah, there you go. That was easy. I've actually never seen a case of tobacco mosaic in my career. So I gather that's more of a greenhouse operation concern. But those those resistances that are built into the hybrids are a distinct advantage. This is why when we're talking on your program, early in the season about going and selecting your tomato varieties, we both kind of Push, get at least a few hybrids in there, you know, they're gonna have this resistance bred into them. And I know people love heirloom tomatoes and all but they don't have that resistance built into them. So diversifying the number of varieties and the types of varieties you're planning can be really important.Farmer Fred :
And one more problem that may affect your tomatoes where the lower leaves and stems look kind of bronze or oily brown color the leaves dry up and drop that could be Russet mites.Don Shor :
That's an interesting one. I've seen it several times. And it's really hard to diagnose from someone's description because they think it just looks like a watering problem. You know, the plant looks like it needs not wilting, but like it's sort of drying out from the ground up. I happened to have that problem very early on when I was a gardener here in the valley. So I got it identified. And it yes, it looks like it's browning slowly from the ground up the vine. the vine keeps growing with reasonable vigor keeps flowering, keep setting but just sort of steadily declines as the season goes along. It can be a tough one. oil sprays can be very helpful early in the season if you've had it one year you might wish to spray for it The next year.The thing, though, is to get a properly diagnosed because it takes a 40 power hand lens to see those little mites and most nurseries and honestly most Master Gardeners aren't going to recognize that problem. It's not something they encounter very often. So take some pictures of the plant, get real close with a with a hand lens and look at the leaf. You might see the russet mite on there. If you have a problem one year, get rid of all the tomato foliage, all the debris at the end of the season, don't compost it, send it away, send it off to the landfill, and watch your plants carefully the next year or perhaps give them a preventive spray with a light oil as they're beginning to grow because it can be a frustrating problem when you get it by the time you figure out what it is. Might be a little late to do anything about it.Farmer Fred :
Is there any truth to the old adage avoid planting tomatoes near petunias and potatoes to avoid Russet mites.Unknown Speaker :
Not that I know of. I think petunias look lovely with tomatoes.Farmer Fred :
We've been doing some tomato troubleshooting with Don Shor owner Redwood bar Nursery in Davis, California. Don thanks for the tomato tips.Don Shor :
Always great to talk to you Fred.Farmer Fred :
oh yes we did not forget about the critter that is probably chewing on your tomato leaves and tomatoes right now, the tomato hornworm. we get a lot of questions that asked the question just where do these blankety blank tomato worms come from? Well, contrary to a popular urban legend, the larvae of the tomato hornworm don't lurk inside tomato seeds. No, that tomato and tobacco hornworm begin their lifecycle as a small singular light green egg, about the size of a thick pinhead, laid in late spring and early summer on the underside of the tomato leaf. So start looking for those pin head, light green eggs. Now that egg got there courtesy of a flying culprit, the Sphinx moth. both the tomato hornworm Sphinx moth and the tobacco hornworm Sphinx moth have similar features. about a four inch wide wingspan, gray body brown wing streaks as well as yellow and white body markings. The egg laid by the Sphinx moth hatches within a week and the emerging hornworm which technically is a caterpillar begins eating and eating and eating and growing. a full grown hornworm satiated by its tomato plant diet, And that by the way, is supplemented with whatever else is handy, including potatoes, eggplants, and peppers, can get up to four inches long. horn worms feed on blossoms leaves and the fruit of those plants. How do you control them? Well hand snipping the tomato worms with scissors or pruners can be a satisfying evening chore, but the trick as seasoned gardeners know is trying to find the hornworms in the first place. tracing their black pellet shaped excrement from the ground back up to the plant usually yields successful result. The best time to find them is in the cool of the morning, or in the evening after sundown. Another popular tomato worm hang out Is the tender new growth at the tops and sides of tomato plants. Now if you prefer to douse those tomato hornworms in chemicals use one that's registered for the pest. What works on tomato hornworms are stomach poisons that contain a bacterial insecticide, such as bt Bacillus thuringiensis, or Spinosad. Both are considered safe for organic gardens, they can be applied directly to the offending hornworms. However, this works best while the worms are still small. The bigger ones though are more problematic. However, there may be help already at work in your yard. The tomato experts at UC Davis pointed out that there's a lot of garden good guys that can help you battle the hornworms. the Integrated Pest Management website at UC Davis says natural enemies normally keep tomato hornworm populations under control. hornworm eggs are attacked by the Tricogramma parasites which is a small wasp. And there's another small wasp: the the hypocenter exiduae that attacks the larvae. I probably mispronounced that. The University of Minnesota points out that other garden good guy such as ladybugs and lace wings will feed on the young tomato hornworms as well as their eggs. One thing you can do after harvest is dig around the tomato plants and you just might find their pupae in the soil and that prevents the adults from developing and emerging as moths the following spring. Now there's another insect that preys on tomato hornworms that you may not think of as being particularly beneficial but they are: paper wasps. In my own yard, I have watched as a paper wasp land on tomato worms bite out a big hunk of their body and fly it back to their nest. I cheered and applauded their efforts when I saw it. and let's not forget about our feathered friends, the birds. plant some evergreen shrubs, it's a safe place for them to live and raise their young when they're not munching on your tomato hornworms. and by the way, you know if you snip those tomato hornworms? you can toss the leftovers to the birds; They would enjoy the treat. Today's q&a came to us via email sent to Fred at farmer Fred dot com and john writes in and he says, I purchased these two tomato cages a couple of years ago they worked great, but since the bottom legs are embedded into the damp soil for a few months, they do get some rust even though they're made of galvanized steel. I was thinking of cleaning them up and then using a rustoleum product to reduce the rust buildup. When I called rustoleum, They said they didn't make a product to coat the cages since that product might leach into the damp soil. Do you have anything to say about that? Well, john, I would say take rustoleum at their word, there are substances that could leach into your garden soil. Now in my experience with the inexpensive tomato cages that you would purchase at a nursery or a big box store. If you don't bend those bottom legs too much they won't break. supported tomato plants. produce more fruit and are subject to fewer problems. But the cages that you buy at nurseries and big box stores, they're small, they're flimsy cones and they would break easily, especially the smaller gauge versions. I still like my homemade cages. I've used them for 30 years now, and they're made from concrete reinforcement wire. There's two ways you can buy concrete reinforcement wire, go to the concrete aisle, back at Lowe's or Home Depot, and you'll see sheets of them piled up they're usually 84 inches by 42 inches. So if you form a circle of that, well, you're going to have something that stands 42 inches tall, with a diameter of about two and a half to three feet. One of the easiest ways to hold them together two or three zip ties along the length of that six inch mesh concrete reinforcement sheets. Now if you want to make them bigger, by a roll. a 50 foot roll of six inch mesh five feet high wire can be cut To make about a half dozen tomato cages, each with a diameter of three feet or more, it's up to you. And the fact that it's a five foot high wire means you've got a five foot high cage. Now instead of cutting off the bottom horizontal wires to be able to sink the vertical wires into the ground instead, stake and tie the cages to the ground with one stake on either side of the cage. I have more information about this and pictures as well at the farmer Fred rant blog page, check out the entry, "Tips for a great tomato garden". And you'll find out more about using concrete reinforcement wire as a tomato cage and you can find a link to this particular farmer Fred rant blog page in the show notes for today. Oh, and those smaller alleged tomato cages that you find at nurseries and big box stores? They make good pepper cages. Thanks for listening to Garden Basics with Farmer Fred brought to you by smart pots. Garden Basics comes out every Tuesday and Friday. It's available on many podcast platforms including Apple, Spotify, Google, iheart, Stitcher, and many more. And if you're listening on Apple, please leave a comment or a rating that helps us decide which garden topics you'd like to see addressed. And again, thank you.