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Garden misfortunes: Program points out problems that can pop up with plants

Mirror photo by Cherie Hicks / Tom Ford, commercial horticulture educator for the Penn State Extension Service, explains several problems of tomatoes growing in the high tunnel at the Monastery Gardens.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — After defeating Carthage in the Third Punic War, ancient Rome salted the earth of the Phoenician city-state to wipe out fields and further destroy the enemy.

Whether or not it’s a true story, don’t put salt in your garden today, said Tom Ford, a commercial horticulture educator for the Penn State Extension Service. Ford led a tour earlier this week of about two dozen people through the Monastery Gardens, where the St. Vincent de Paul Society grows food for local food banks and rents small plots to individuals.

He pointed out misfortunes that can be found in gardens this time of year — and the miscalculations that might have caused them.

Even take care when adding Epsom salt to a garden where there is a deficiency of magnesium, evident in yellow leaves near the bottom of plants, he said.

“Please be careful that your readers don’t just see ‘salt’ and skip over the word ‘Epsom,'” Ford implored the Mirror before referring to the Roman conquest of Carthage.

One man said he broadcasts Epsom salt before a rain, but Ford encouraged gardeners to dissolve them in water first, either in a drip system or watering can.

While several suggested that the tomatoes in the Monastery Gardens’ high tunnel “really look good,” Ford said, “I beg to differ.”

Then he pointed out a myriad of problems, including the use of individual wooden stakes for every plant. He recommended using a basket weave of twine wended through the plants and only occasionally staked because you shouldn’t use wooden stakes for more than one growing season.

“They can absorb canker” and other problems that “could basically infect your field next year. There’s no way to sanitize them,” he said.

Ford also gave a quick lesson in the two basic growth habits of tomatoes: determinate, which are the bush type, and the indeterminate, which are the vine type. Determinate varieties generally won’t produce more than 30 pounds of fruit, while indeterminate varieties will continue to produce throughout the growing season up to 70 pounds.

Ford also recommended using care in pruning determinant varieties.

“You can prune off some lower branches early for better circulation, but it’s a fine line,” he said. “You can cut off too much, and if you do it too late, a fungi can develop.”

He recommended that gardeners pinch off sucker branches of indeterminate varieties early to “establish a leader” and throughout the growing season.

“It delays production, but you get bigger fruit, better yields,” he said.

Ford also plucked a tomato with blossom end rot, evident from a large black spot on the bottom.

“The No. 1 cause of that is uneven watering,” which leads to a calcium deficiency because regular watering pushes that nutrient into the plant, he said.

And when you’re inspecting your tomatoes for potential problems, use a mirror. Pulling on the fruit can crimp the stem, raising the risk for fungi and other problems, he said.

Ford also pointed out that some small yellow spots on the tomato plant leaves represent leaf mold, which happens in high humidity. To prevent that, he said, raise the sides of the high tunnel and space the rows further apart for better circulation.

“You need to get more air through,” he said, adding that none of the bush-type varieties have a natural resistence to leaf mold, while some indeterminate varities, such as the Geronimo, do.

He warned that late blight already has moved as far north as Virginia and as far east as western New York.

“If we get some cold weather, the outbreak will spread and we’ll get bit,” he said. “You end up having a trade-off of diseases,” because some like it cold and some like it hot.

Ford also explained that 90 percent of tomatoes consumed in this country are picked when they’re green. For them to ripen correctly, “you have to have the right temperature management,” he said.

Ford was able to spot a couple of hornworms on the tomatoes; they can be one of the most destructive pests to vegetable gardens. One was destroyed and the other left intact because it was loaded with little white wasp eggs that are a parasite to the worm.

“That is an example of nature’s bio-control,” he said.

While it looked like Ford may have been picking on the gardens, “I don’t look at it that way at all,” said Teresa Futrick, a board member of the gardens and active volunteer there. “This is very informative, very beneficial information.”

Ford, with a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture from the University of Maryland and a masters from Frostburg (Maryland) State University, is widely respected for his knowledge. Some tour attendees came from as far away as Fallentimber and Mineral Point, nearly 30 miles away. One referred to him as a “walking encyclopedia.”

His “observations are wide-ranging, and his comments are always spot on,” Futrick said.

Ford explained the danger of bad insects, such as thrips and leaf miners, to onions, leeks and the like, as well as diseases such as powdered and downy mildew to cucumbers and more.

Some pests could cause leaves to drop which could lead to sunscald, particularly on peppers and tomatoes. And, one surprising disease can be transmitted by man, tobacco mosaic virus.

“Don’t buy plants from people who are smoking in the greenhouse,” Ford said. “They’re handling the plants and and can infect them. It will reduce yields. There’s not a problem eating them, but … they look bad.”

Otherwise, stressed tomatoes can impact the canning process and lead to more spoilage, Ford said.

One bright spot in the Monastery Gardens was a patch of cucumbers.

“It’s relatively clean right now,” he said.

But when someone asked him about a small cuke with a bulbous end, Ford said, “Bad pollination. There’s no evidence of bee flight through here. The more bees, the more cucumbers you’ll get. We also may miss out on entire clusters (of tomatoes) because of a lack of pollination,” he said.

Ford said the lack of bees isn’t strictly due to man destroying them through an overuse of pesticides.

“It’s a combination of chemistry and diseases that are killing the bees,” he said. “There are mites out there killing the bees. I know a lot of people want a simple answer, but there are multiple causes of bee decline.”

While much of Ford’s advice may be too late for this growing season, he said it isn’t too late to put in certain late crops now: cukes, zucchini, kale, lettuce, peas, snap beans, beets, radishes, “any of the cold weather crops.

“It’s not too late to put in tomato plants at least 6 to 8 inches tall to go in for a fall crop,” he said. “Our falls have been pretty mild for the last five years.”

Winding down the tour by a row of asparagus, Ford recommended leaving them in the field through at least January to provide nesting sites for birds as well as a cover crop. One gardener said he uses rock salt to fight weeds in his asparagus garden, but Ford recommended against it.

“It’s an old methodology,” he said. “If you ever rotate out of asparagus, nothing else will grow there.”

While you may like to salt your veggies, don’t do it in the garden, as the Romans proved two millennia ago.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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For more information, check out www.extension.psu.edu

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