Originally Published: May 1, 2004 7:01 a.m.
Have you noticed that the native oak trees are looking terrible right now? Every year at this time customers stream into the garden center asking why their trees are dying.
Not to worry. Our local oak trees know exactly what they're doing, and are right on time. Just before these gentle giants push new leaves out in spring they shed all of last year's growth. Within two weeks you will notice tender new growth over the entire canopy of these trees. Fertilize them with a good granular tree and shrub food and deep water them right afterward and you will see spectacular growth and leaves emerging from every branch.
I have a very old oak here at Watters Garden Center that must be every bit of 200 years old, but leafy mistletoe has begun to attack the tree. OK, it hasn't just begun because the garden center has been at this location for more than 20 years and the tree has had mistletoe in it longer than that. I make sure we spray the mistletoe every year at this time when the leaves fall from the tree. It's the perfect time because you see every ball-shaped form of this parasite that will eventually kill the tree.
It doesn't do any good to simply scrape the leafy area off each branch; it will grow right back and take energy from the host plant. You either cut the branch off that has the mistletoe, or you spray it with a growth regulator. I can't cut the mistletoe out of my oak because it's growing right into the trunk of the tree, so I am forced to spray.
Be careful what you spray. DO NOT use a weed killer unless you want to kill the tree as well. Remember, mistletoe is a parasite that has its root structure flowing up and down the branch of a tree about 18 inches out from each end of the ball of growth you see on the actual branch. Poisoning the parasite will also poison the host plant.
I started spraying my oak 12 years ago with a growth regular named "Florel". It doesn't kill the mistletoe, but inhibits the growth so that it doesn't come back as quickly. I found one spraying a year keeps it in check, but you need to spray before it blooms in late May. Now is the perfect time to spray your oaks.
I told you last week that I would share my secrets for growing really good tomatoes in the tri-city area. It worked when I lived in Prescott, Prescott Valley and now in Skull Valley. The town itself doesn't seem to matter, although the water pattern can flex depending on the amount of clay you have in the soil. Drainage will always help grow nice tomatoes.
The most important step to great tomatoes is in your plant selection. I have had the best luck with tomato vines that have small- to medium-sized fruits. Any tomato plant that produces small fruits does well here. You know the ones. You have to pop a few in the mouth while you are picking them out in the garden. Cherry, sweet 100 and yellow pear tomatoes ripen early and produce heavy. All good choices for the tri-city area.
Vines that produce medium-sized fruits also do very well. They ripen mid season and produce heavy. My favorites are Early Girl for my salsa; Champion, Patio and Celebrity for a good eating, slicing tomato, but there are many others.
I stay away from the beef master varieties. These fruiting giants take forever to produce the first fruit and frequently have many green tomatoes on the vine just as the first frost is arriving in October. They just take too long to produce an edible fruit. If you have the time to put them in a container and haul them in and out of the garage every night in early April it might do well. If you have a greenhouse and can start them early, they produce fabulous fruit.
The next step is to plant them deep. Tomatoes are one of those rare plants that will root from the vine when planted deep. I pick a tall plant that has nice foliage at the top and pick off all the lower stems and leaves so I can plant it as deep as possible. More roots that are deeper equal bigger tomato plants that are easier to water.
Blossom end rot is a serious problem here, or a tomato plant that won't keep its blossoms. This is caused by two variables. Tomatoes love calcium, and if there is a deficiency it will show up in the fruit. The bottom of the fruit will turn black and deform the tomato. This usually shows up in the first fruits of the season.
The easiest way to give your tomatoes calcium is putting a handful of gypsum at the bottom of the planting hole. I dig my hole and add a handful of gypsum in the bottom of each, then add about one inch of garden soil on top of the gypsum, allowing the roots of the tomato to grow through the gypsum and pick up the calcium.Gypsum also helps with drainage issues.
Blossoms that drop off the plant and won't set fruit is easily compensated for. This is usually a pollination issue. It's always a good idea to spray your first blossoms with a tomato set spray. It forces the flower to pollinate and set fruit. We sell a great one here at the garden center by Fertilome that will also help the set of pepper plants.
Consistent moisture is critical for tomatoes. Top dress the garden soil with a layer of compost or mulch when done planting. I like to put a single layer of newspaper down around my plants and add a two-inch layer of mulch on top of the newspaper. The newspaper keeps weeds from growing around the vines and the mulch regulates the moisture needed by the plant. Go ahead, use the garden column page to produce big juicy tomatoes. Just don't forget to add the mulch.
Ever had a tomato vine that was all vine and few blossoms or fruit? This is a classic case of adding too much nitrogen with your vegetable food, or too much manure to the garden soil. Reduce the nitrogen given to your tomatoes and it will produce more fruit. I like to use a slow release fertilizer on all my vegetables and flowers. Osmicote is a well-known brand, but I like the one produced by Fertilome, "Start-N-Grow". It has the same three-month release formula at half the price per pound of fertilizer. Every time you water, a little food is released to the plant, promoting stronger root growth and better fruits.
Keep a watch out for big green caterpillars that show up the first of June. The tomato hornworm gets to be four inches long and loves to eat tomatoes and peppers. I have caught one of these giants actually eating the jalapeño pepper right off the plant. Pruners quickly turned him into bird bait, but you can also dust your plant with "Dipel Dust". This organic dust is eaten by caterpillars and makes them very sick. They stop eating and finally die of starvation.
The long-range weather forecast for the area looks favorable for planting the garden this week, but be careful. Tomatoes do not like the nighttime temperature to go below 50 degrees. If we dip below the low 40's, cover them with a sheet, paper bag or a box. It will keep them vigorously growing.
Until next week, I'll see you in the veggie aisle at the garden center.