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Good tomato crop probably a result of cool spring weather

Q: I raised tomatoes for about seven years, and this year was my best year. The tomatoes that work best for me are Early Girl, Champion and Celebrity. This year I got about 200 tomatoes from these three plants already; they are still coming, and they taste good too. The only thing I did differently this year is to put a 1-inch layer of worm castings on top of the soil. Was it the weather or the worm castings that did it or both?

A: This might sound like heresy, but there is nothing special about worm castings versus any good compost or quality amendment added to the soil. Some might argue, but the tomato plant doesn’t know the difference. The important thing is that soil improvement was done.

But the overriding factor this year was probably the cool spring weather. Granted, you are managing your tomatoes better each year, the spring weather was cool for a long period of time, and you applied a good soil amendment and fertilizer in the form of worm castings.

Repeat what you did next year and see if there is a difference in your production and the taste of your tomatoes. Hopefully, you took some good notes. I am guessing you will see a smaller number of fruit produced if the weather heats up in a hurry and there isn’t a long, cool spring like we had this year. And if you use a good soil amendment, such as worm castings or a quality compost, the tomatoes should taste superb again.

Tomatoes stop setting fruit when air temperatures stay consistently above 95 degrees. The tomatoes that set earlier continue to grow and mature when it stays hot. That isn’t the problem, It’s the production of fruit that stops at high air temperatures. That’s when the entire plant stops making more fruit.

If the air temperature drops below 95 for a couple of days, new flowers will again set fruit. They stop setting again once the air temperature returns above 95. With air temperatures that fluctuate to the low 90s and then rise to the high 90s, tomato fruit production might be erratic.

Some other varieties of tomatoes to try include cherry tomatoes such as Sweet 100, Sun Gold and grape tomatoes and the yellow pear tomatoes. These plants are reliable, quickly produce fruit from flowers and can fill some gaps when temperatures fluctuate a lot.

Also, choose tomatoes that are determinate in form rather than indeterminate. These tomatoes tend to produce larger numbers of fruit early in the season and don’t sprawl all over the garden.

Include varieties like Better Boy or Big Boy and a Roma type like San Marzano for a “meatier” tomato. Move tomato plants to the other end of a raised bed rather than plant them in the same spot year after year. That helps reduce disease problems.

High temperatures produce a sweeter tomato and lower temperatures keep the acidity higher. Good flavor needs a balance between sweetness and acidity. The variety and weather conditions produce these delicate flavors unless the soil is void of plant nutrients. Small amounts of mineral fertilizers work well if the soil has organics, like worm castings, added to it.

Q: I recently moved into a condo that has pine trees on the property. Some of them look like they aren’t growing much, but those still in grassy areas look much better. Some other pines have branches that are dying back. Do I need to supply water to these trees?

A: All of this is not simply a water issue. There is probably a disease problem going on as well.

But first things first. Pine tree branch growth, and how dense the tree is, has a lot to do with how much water it receives in the spring and early summer months. Just as important is how deep the water drains in the soil, to encourage deep root growth, after it’s applied.

Most native pine trees grow along canyons or stream banks where water is plentiful in the spring months and less available later in the season. Water availability coincides with spring growth, which in turn increases the tree density.

Water pine trees deeply, particularly in the spring months. How deep? Water should drain 24 to 36 inches into the soil each time it’s watered. To make sure it’s deep enough, measure this depth with a long thin metal rod like a piece of rebar.

Plenty of water this time of year helps push new growth. This new growth supports the needles responsible for a dense tree canopy. Deep irrigations are important later in the year, but less often, to maintain this density.

Lawn watering only applies water about 8 or 10 inches deep. That is not deep enough for large pine trees as they get bigger. Watering lawns with shallow irrigations might keep the trees denser, but it doesn’t encourage the deep roots needed during strong windstorms.

Besides the lawn water, large pine trees should get periodic deep watering as well. Pine trees in lawns might look full, but they usually will blow over during windstorms as they get bigger.

Branch dieback of pine trees is usually a disease called Aleppo pine blight, which cannot be cured. In most cases, new pine needles in the spring replace the dead needles lost during the winter months.

Q: We are thinking of planting a pomegranate bush in our backyard. I suppose right now in the middle of summer is not a good time to plant. Would late September or early October be OK, or do we have to wait until spring? Any other helpful hints on planting this type of bush?

A: Summer months when it’s hot is not the best time for planting anything except palm trees and Bermuda grass. Pomegranates will struggle after planting during the summer months. To attempt summer planting, you better have a very green thumb and lots of experience gardening in the desert.

Wait until fall, about mid-September to mid-October in Southern Nevada. You will have more success during the fall months, and the plant will be happier.

A disadvantage is that the selection of local plants is not as large as in the spring months. Probably the two most popular pomegranate varieties are the traditional Wonderful or the sweeter and soft-seeded Utah Sweet variety. If you don’t see what you want, wait until spring.

If you must plant now, do it early in the morning and have the hole already dug and the soil used for planting amended with compost. Fill the hole with water the night before and let it drain overnight.

When planting, soak the container in freshwater for about 30 minutes. Take it out of its container and immediately place it in the hole and start filling the hole with water. Add the amended soil to this slurry and let it flow around the plant roots.

Stake the plant to keep the roots from moving and water the entire planting hole thoroughly so it’s muddy. Water it again, just like that, the next day. Set the irrigation controller so that it waters not more often than every other day during the heat.

Q: I have a dozen, full-sized oleander plants I put in last year. I fertilized them with a 20-20-20 fertilizer. They are growing great, but they rarely flower. Am I missing something, or is it the fertilizer?

A: It will probably take about three years for them to really start flowering a lot with that fertilizer and regular irrigations. Oleander loves irrigation water. It also loves fertilizer. The combination of regularly watering and applying a good fertilizer results in dark green leaves with lots of new succulent growth.

This new growth is not yet fully mature. When it does flower a little bit later in its life, the show will be spectacular. Just be patient.

The nitrogen in the fertilizer is the first 20. The second and third 20s stand for the phosphorus and potassium in the fertilizer. The middle 20, the phosphorus, encourages flowering, but it also encourages the roots to get firmly established in the soil.

Flowers will be produced on new growth. The more stems of new growth, the more flowers it produces. If the oleander is lush and bushy, it will be full of flowers and bloom when it’s ready.

Bob Morris is a horticulture expert and professor emeritus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Visit his blog at xtremehorticulture.blogspot.com. Send questions to Extremehort@aol.com.

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