Saturday, July 26, 2008

No, not VD, BD (Growing Challenge, and this time it is a real challenge)

It's been a summer of ups and downs so far in the garden plot.

For tomatoes, it has been mostly down. The plants get themselves all tall and proud, then when they've worked themselves into a frenzy of flower buds, just at the point of pollination, the flowers shrivel up and fall over. Darn. Each and every plant, whether in a pot or in the plot, is suffering from a bad case of Blossom Drop, BD. These are tomato plants that should be putting me in a glut of tomatoes so deep I wouldn't be able to swim my way through it, but no, so far I've harvested one tomato from my garden.

One tomato.

I have eight plants.

I have more tomatoes coming, my plants aren't completely barren; nevertheless, they're few and far between, and mostly still completely green. Statistics like this are a deep, deep blow to one's gardening ego, and not satisfied with the state of my beloved tomatoes that I've raised from seed, I've done quite a bit of research. Here are what I've found to be the major causes of blossom drop in tomatoes:
  • High humidity. That is clearly not the case here in Southern California, so this can't be the culprit.
  • Too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer. I fertilized my tomatoes once, soon after I planted them, with liquid seaweed to help them transition and build root mass in their new homes. However, liquid seaweed is not a high nitrogen fertilizer. On the other hand, the plants now grow where peas and fava beans grew during the winter, and those are both nitrogen-fixing crops. Could they have made the soil too rich with nitrogen? It doesn't seem possible, but I'd love your input.
  • Evenings that are too cool, below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That is clearly not the case around here.
  • Too little water. I've been thinking about this one a lot. I try not to overwater my tomatoes, for several reasons; first, too much water weakens the plants; second, we don't have water to waste in Southern California. While I was in Portugal, I had my friend water three times during that week, just to make sure that the plants had plenty of water, but usually I water once or twice a week depending on need, deeply. Tomatoes have deep roots, the plants don't look like they're suffering from lack of water (no wilting), and when I dig down a bit under the top layer, the soil is never dry. I don't think this is the problem.
  • Evenings and days that are too hot (over 75 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day). Although we have had stretches of heat that were higher, lately it has been in the 60s at night and the upper 80s during the day. Last year, I had days that were just as hot and I still had fruit from at least one plant, but even my mighty Black Krim plant, the variety that I grew last year that took the heat, smiled, and set even more fruit, is dropping its flowers right and left this summer.
None of those reasons seem like the answer. And now, for the kicker: the woman with whom I share the plot has two store-bought tomato plants, I don't know what variety, but the plants are much smaller than mine, and they are covered with fruit.

Someone, some dear, dear reader with deep wisdom regarding the mystery of tomatoes and their wily ways, please help me solve my tomato problem.


This evening, ECG and a buddy were out in the driveway, barbecuing a tri-tip on our kettle grill. As I sat inside, I could hear them laughing, telling jokes and being their silly, ridiculous selves. The majority of me really wanted to go downstairs and laugh along, but the gardener me was too much on edge. My tomato BD seemed insolvable. Researching the problem and finding no clear answers made me angry, and I sat, glaring at the computer monitor, with my molars clenched tight.

Finally, I stood up from the desk chair and marched into the kitchen, my feet fiercely slapping the linoleum. I planned on forcing myself away from the tomatoes and down to the grill, where I'd be sure to have fun. I opened the fridge, looked around in it and considered a beer, but reconsidered and closed the refrigerator. Scanning the counter, my eyes rested on a pile of donut peaches (small, flattened white peaches). A bruised fruit called out to me, and I picked it up, holding it to my nose.

A white peach does not smell like a yellow peach; instead, it is slightly floral, with maybe a touch of rose blossom. I consider a yellow peach as hitting a full range of flavors, from high, medium, to low, but a white peach hits only the upper notes and the lower notes: they're remarkably sweet but have an herbal, almost bitter edge. Put another way, a yellow peach is a nice, solid major triad chord, while a white peach is a more moody diminished triad. These flavors shouted at me to play with them, not to tone them down, but to emphasize their unique quality, and so I did. The following drink is the result.

White Peach G&T (Or, if your tomatoes have a bad case of BD, fix yourself a G&T)
You will need:
1/2 white peach (or one whole donut peach), peeled and cut into chunks
5 mint leaves
1 teaspoon simple syrup
2 ounces gin (Hendricks works well here, with its very clean, very herbal flavor)
Tonic water and ice to taste

To make the drink:
In your favorite highball glass, energetically muddle the peach with the mint and simple syrup. Add the gin and stir to combine flavors, letting the gin sink a bit into the peach before moving to the next step. After a minute or so, add ice and tonic water to taste, and stir to mix flavors.

Sip the drink, smile, and go downstairs to laugh with the boys.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the tomatoes! My bet would be the nitrogen issue, but that's as much a guess as anything else (and the news that the tomatoes are following the beans and peas.) I've seen folks talking about issues of plants not getting pollinated, with instructions to shake them and such, but I can't quite believe that would be it.

That white peach G+T looks WONDERFUL.

Beach Bum said...

I always thought that this was a lack of Calcium. Which is why "tomato" fertilizers have extra calcium in them.

My grandmother used to seal egg shells and water up in a jar, set it in the sun for a couple of weeks, until it was green and foul-smelling, and then annoint her tomato plants.

Unknown said...

A White Peach G&T sounds heavenly! I'm not sure about your tomato problem - pollination would be one guess. Here in Kentucky, we've had a huge decline in honey bees and lots of crops are failing because of this. If you have lush green foliage but no fruit, the problem may be too much nitrogen - do you mulch with grass clippings or other green manure? This can raise the nitrogen level.

Sorry, but that's all the advice I have. Good luck!

Gina Alfani said...

I love the idea of sealing egg shells and water in a jar, I'll have to try that . . . thanks beach bum.

I agree that it is a lack of calcium. What I do when I plant tomato plants is throw in lots of egg shells in the original planting soil and continue to scatter egg shells around the plants as they are available. Works for me and I'm in the high humidity of central Florida.

Love your blog :)

West Coast Grrlie Blather said...

I have no tomato knowledge--sorry. I love your creativity as expressed through the marriage of fruit and gin!

Anonymous said...

Maybe you mentioned before, but you don't say what kind of tomatoes you're growing. Knowing this might offer some clues.

I doubt it's a nitrogen issue, but again knowing the varieties would help. Right now I am growing a few tomatoes in the same bed as beans, with the intention the beans would provide nitrogen. The fruit set is a little down on the tomatoes, but nothing serious. Anyway, too much nitrogen will result in big, green, bushy plants, and you don't say anything about that.

Pollination could be an issue. Do you get breezes? Tomatoes are either wind or insect pollinated, and if you don't have either you might need to give your plant a gentle shake from time to time.

Otherwise it's could be a climate issue. For example if you are growing a Russian tomato, it may just not be suited to your warm dry climate or southern latitude.

Elizabeth Chase said...

I know how much you love your tomatoes! The fact that the other half of the garden is growing tomatoes makes this a hair-pulling-out worthy mystery, because it just doesn't make sense. Could it have anything to do with the fact that her half is receiving shade from the Black Walnut tree for parts of the day? That's the only difference I can muster. But one thing I did note from your laundry list is that our humidity in SoCal is up 20% + over the last five years or so. But I'm from The Deep South where tomatoes flourish, so I wouldn't think that would be the issue either! Anyway, maybe a prayer to the Goddess of Lycopersicum is in order. :)

Chris said...

I thought it was only my tomato plants! I also harvested just 1 tomato (but I only had one plant in a pot due to verticillium wilt, but that is another story), and I thought maybe the lack of bees was at fault, but I think it must be BD. I have another small tomato plant in the garden with several small tomatoes, I hope they make it before the VW hits them.
The drink sounds perfect for a summer evening, think I will look for some white peaches soon...

Christina said...

Sue: I think my plants have plenty of pollinators, including a gentle breeze. You may be correct about the nitrogen issue; that may very well be the case. The drink is wonderful--I highly suggest you enjoy one soon.

Beach Bum: I hadn't heard that calcium was a cause of blossom drop, although I know it is a major cause of blossom end rot. I don't have an issue with blossom end rot on the fruits I do have. I add all my eggshells to the soil, and since this is former gravelly riverbed, the soil is already pretty rich in calcium. I like the idea of the green-egg-sludge though. I'll certainly give it a try.

Bobbi: I don't mulch with green manure. I haven't mulched the tomatoes because where they are in the plot stays pretty evenly moist, and the soil never dries completely out. I have mulched my melon and squash patch, adjacent to the tomatoes, with compost this summer. Maybe the tomatoes are getting some rich run-off from the melons. Thanks for the ideas!

Gina: Thanks for the compliments! I'm already incorporating all of my eggshells (and those of my neighbors) into the soil and on top of it. I really don't think it is a calcium problem, but I greatly appreciate the suggestion.

WCGB: Make the drink--I think you'll like it!

Patrick: Oh my, you've always got such great information. Well, let's see. In pots, I have one Homer Fike's Yellow Oxheart (provenance, West Virginia) and one Marglobe (an old commercial variety). In the ground, I have another Homer Fike's, a Black Krim (from the Crimea region, but one that grew and fruited spectacularly no matter what the weather last year), an Amish Paste (provenance, Wisconsin), a Blondkopfchen (provenance, Germany), a Thessoloniki Oxheart (unclear provenance, although it sounds like it is from Greece, I'm not sure it is), and a Persimmon (unclear provenance). Both Homer Fike's, the Amish Paste, and the Black Krim, are huge plants, but not unusually green. The other plants are remarkably slow to grow this year; they look very healthy, but aren't as big as I expected the plants to be at this point in the year (they went in early April). So I have big plants, small plants, plants from a variety of climates--there just doesn't seem to be a clear pattern other than lack of fruit. As for pollination, we usually have gentle breezes in the morning and evening here, there are quite a few bugs of all sorts (bees, bumblebees, flies, etc) in the plot, and out of desperation, I've even tried using a paintbrush to pollinate. Certainly not much luck. Can you see why I want to pull my hair out? Argh! Thank, as always, for your help though.

Elizabeth: Maybe the bit of shade is helping keep things cool. I could try a shade cloth to even temperatures. Thanks for the support.

Special thanks for the input from each and every one of you. I always hoped that this could be a place of idea-sharing, and you've certainly allowed it to be that. I'm very thankful for you shared wisdom.

Christina said...

Chris: I'm so glad to know that I'm not alone. Good luck fighting off the Verticulum Wilt!

Anonymous said...

Except that I'm also growing Blondkopfchen and it's also not setting a lot of fruit, it doesn't seem like the varieties you're growing are at issue. It sounds like you're doing everything right.

Christine said...

makes me want a mango mojito...*sigh* i miss mixing drinks :'( but it's good to be home ^^ so when do you have time this week? i'll try to call dan and do you know if milo is in town?

Anonymous said...

so that's what you were drinking!!

Rowena said...

First of all, I love your new header!

Secondly, I feel for your tomato blues, and am making a note of this because I have never heard, let alone experienced elsewhere, of BD. The eggshell solution sounds easy enough to do, and if it simply means tossing them into the ground as I'd be more likely to do, then eggshells away!
p.s. I'll have that beer for ya!

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

It's sneaking up on 1:30 in the afternoon here, so cocktail hour is somewhere out over the Atlantic right now. Dang. Right now is when I want one of these.

Christina said...

Patrick: Argh. Oh well.

Christine: It was so good to see you the other day. Are you taking off tomorrow? I wish I could spend more time with you.

Lance: Yup. You should have asked for one, but it certainly looked like you were enjoying the beer. It was great to have you in town. ECG already misses you.

Rowena: Thanks! As for the eggshells, all of them go into the ground already, so I'm fairly certain my issue isn't calcium.

Terry B.: Let me know when you do get to enjoy the cocktail and what you think. I'd love your input. We should work together to invent a drink! Wouldn't that be cool?

Happy weekend, everyone.

AJK said...

I'm sorry about your tomatoes... but I love your blog! Just discovered it!

Anonymous said...

I've had the same experience as you have with tomatoes - plants that inexplicably produce nothing but leaves. I just chalked it up to not having rich enough soil. But all of your tomatoes? Do let us know what happens.

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

Great idea, Christina. The only problem would be remembering what exactly we'd done by the time we concocted the perfect drink!