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An Early Crop of Tomatoes--On the Coast!


I finally managed to bring in a crop of early tomatoes, picking the first ripe tomatoes just after Memorial Day, which is when I usually plant them.

This is no trick in the warmer, favored Southern California climates, but in my cool, coastal garden the often-gloomy weather conspires against tomatoes planted before May. The plants grow like crazy but they do not set fruit.

This year I tried again, in what I hoped would be the magic spot--against a warm, reflective, south-facing wall, out of the ocean breezes. I planted an 'Early Girl' in late February, inside a 5-foot-tall wire cage. It began making fruit in April when halfway to the top. Now, it's nearly over the top and the fruit are 3 inches across, plentiful and turning red daily.

But I may have to wait for another year to see if this success is actually attributable to my superior spot for tomatoes because I've heard reports that other coastal gardeners are also picking tomatoes already.

It's probably because we had a most unusual spring, with an almost total lack of overcast. June may yet grow gloomy, but March, April and May were surprisingly sunny and warm, what even the early varieties need.

I'd like to hear from other gardeners that have had luck with early tomatoes, whether they garden near the coast or not. I've told you my "secret"--what's yours?

To mulch or not

While mulches can harbor slugs, sowbugs, earwigs and other critters, some recent tests suggest that mulches can double the harvest on tomatoes.

According to the Tomato Club newsletter (P.O. Box 418, Bogota, NJ 07603), tomatoes mulched with wheat straw had "yields averaging nearly twice as much as those in the bare ground."

The university experimenters also found fewer diseases on the mulched tomatoes, including less anthracnose, early blight and blossom end rot. They think the mulch provided a physical barrier between the soil-borne inoculum and the susceptible fruit. They used hay as a mulch, probably (the article didn't say) a 2- to 3-inch layer, but other materials would most likely work as well, though I might stay away from grass clippings since, piled on thick enough, they tend to ferment.

Baking soda vs. powdery mildew

The aptly named powdery mildew is perhaps the most common of rose diseases, even though it typically appears only at certain times, usually in late spring or early summer. It twists and distorts new leaves and flower buds, dusting the foliage with what looks like chalky powder.

Funginex (Triforine) is the control most often used, but it only works as a preventive spray--you must spray it on the foliage before mildew appears, and then keep spraying every week or so.

But I've been hearing about a baking soda-based concoction that actually cures powdery mildew, even after the bushes are covered with the stuff. Everyone has a different formulation, some using a lot, some a little, some simply adding it to another rose spray mixture--good folk medicine but hardly rocket science.

Tommy Cairns, an avid rose grower in Studio City and a chemist, formerly with the FDA, finally gave me an exact formulation and a precise way of mixing all the ingredients. Furthermore, he actually knows why it works--the baking soda simply sucks all the moisture out of the fungus so it withers and dies.

His formula uses a bunch of household products that are probably on your kitchen shelves, plus one that should be in the potting shed. To make a gallon of spray, he begins by mixing the following into one cup of water: 1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda, 1 tablespoon canola oil (a premium vegetable oil), 1 tablespoon insecticidal soap (such as Safer's) and 1 tablespoon ordinary white vinegar.

Add the vinegar last or your concoction will fizz like a junior high chemistry experiment. Vinegar makes our alkaline water more acidic so the other ingredients work better.

Stir thoroughly, then add enough additional water to make a gallon for your tank sprayer. If you're using a hose-end sprayer, pour the mixed cup in and then add enough water to bring it up to the 1 gallon mark (you won't need to add much, if any).

Don't spray when it's going to be over 85 degrees, so pick a coolish day then thoroughly soak the rose early in the morning. I immediately tried this home brew and the mildew vanished before my eyes!

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