Bountiful Tomatoes Year After Year

Thirty years ago, Arlene Gantman planted tomatoes in several sections of her Van Nuys back yard. Her initial attempts enjoyed a bountiful harvest that first year. Every year since, she has planted tomatoes in the same spots in her back yard and, without fail, has enjoyed abundant crops.
“This is exactly the opposite of what you always write,” she chided me. That’s true. Based on personal experience and research, I had long been convinced that plant pests are drawn to annuals, be they flowers or vegetables, that are grown in the same place in the garden year after year. This is partly because each plant has its own specific mineral needs; in time, those particular minerals will be depleted from the soil. Without the minerals it needs, a plant will weaken and become susceptible to insect pests and diseases.
To replenish lost soil minerals, Gantman relies on an elaborate soil-building routine. Each spring before she plants, Gantman enriches soil with a pre-plant fertilizer (carrying the Nurseryman’s label), bone meal, Epsom salts, Osmocote (a slow-release fertilizer) and brown sugar. Brown sugar? “Don’t ask me how it works. I just know that it makes a difference,” Gantman said.
No fertilizer is applied once her tomato plants are in the ground. It has long been recognized among tomato growers that fertilization after planting results in lots of foliar growth at the expense of tomato development itself. In tomatoes, there is a delicate balance between vegetative (foliar) and reproductive (fruit) growth; excessive fertilization tilts this balance to the side of vegetative growth, resulting in small harvests.
Gantman does not germinate tomato seeds, but grows plants acquired from the nursery in 4-inch or one-gallon containers. She is partial to less-common varieties, such as Brandywine and Green Zebra, which are presently heavy with fruit. She finds the exotic varieties she favors at two nurseries: Sego in North Hollywood and Hortus in Pasadena.
There is one part of Gantman’s tomato picture that deserves special mention: Her soil is a soft and inviting sandy loam. This type of soil is favored by almost anything that grows – and tomatoes, in particular, thrive in ground that never gets too wet. In fact, Gantman’s method of irrigation, which is to turn the sprinklers on once or twice a week, is not the ideal watering because it is inexact and because sprinkler spray can encourage fungus growth on leaf and fruit. The fact Gantman waters this way and succeeds is attributable to her perfect soil; plants that grow in it are robust enough to accommodate imperfect cultural practices.
By the way, it is not too late to plant tomatoes. Because of our long growing season, you should be able to harvest tomatoes planted now well into the fall.
As proud as Gantman is of her tomatoes, she is perplexed and upset about the behavior of her carrot wood tree. The carrot wood (Cupaniopsis anacardiodes) is an Australian tree that gets its name from the color of its wood beneath the bark, a striking orange that you will see at pruning time.
At this moment, carrot woods all over the Valley are dropping their fruit. The litter is enormous, so there is the task of constantly cleaning up underneath. Gantman heard that some carrot woods produce less fruit than others and wanted to know why. She also wondered why she had so much fruit this year, when normally her tree is almost bare of fruit. According to the Sunset Western Garden Book, no one is sure why some carrot woods produce fruit and others do not. Robust trees with wider-than-normal leaflets are thought to be less fruitful; stressed trees are supposedly more fruitful. Trees that are frequently pruned will put more energy into growth of new shoots and Gantman’s tree has not been pruned in many years, is approaching its mature size and can finally devote most of its energy to forming fruit, plus the fact that it may be under stress from the record-breaking heat we have experienced over the last several years.
Whatever the case, the carrot wood is a highly adaptable medium-size evergreen tree that can accept wet or dry soil, inland or coastal climates. It self-sows without conscience and, in Florida, has become a major pest tree, taking over thousands of acres of ecologically sensitive sites in the Everglades.
Tip of the week:off! According to the Sunset Garden Book, planting the right kind of ground cover under a carrot wood would disguise fruit accumulation below. Such a ground cover would have to be tall and not too dense, such as ivy geranium, creeping myrtle (Vinca Major) or coral bells (Heuchera).
GARDEN WONDERS
Gardener: Patti Assendrup
Residence: Thousand Oaks
Plant of interest: About a month ago, Assendrup noticed a small vine twining out from her flower bed of impatiens and kalanchoe. The vine put out “a lot of big, pumpkin-like leaves and pretty yellow flowers” and has grown about 2 feet long, along the path of her front walk. From the center of the vine, a hard green bud has developed.
What makes this plant amazing: “There’s nothing planted there (in the flower bed) but the impatiens and kalanchoe. I don’t know where the vine came from.”
Maintenance: “I haven’t done anything to the plant. There’s the sprinklers, and I spray vitamins on my plants, but not that one, really. I was going to pull it, but it looked interesting.”
What Joshua Siskin says: “Unexplained plants aren’t really that unusual. Seeds can be carried by birds or the wind. Anything can grow anywhere, almost. Things get dropped into the ground all the time. Maybe it was a bird, or someone was eating something with seeds. This particular plant sounds like it’s some kind of gourd or squash.”
– Mike Chmielecki

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