This summer in Maine has been exceptionally hot and dry. Even the recent rains have been unable to make up for the dry conditions that some parts of the state have been experiencing. How might this affect this year’s tomato crop?
“We went from snowing Mothers Day weekend, to three frosts after, to desert[-like] heat and dry,” said Melissa Higgins, a manager at Sprague’s Garden Center & Nursery. “This has been an extremely stressful growing season for especially all of the new gardeners that we’ve had.”
The popular crop can be negatively impacted when there isn’t sufficient rain.
“What we’re telling everybody is fertilizer and water, water, water,” Higgins said. “Keep the fertilizer up in those raised beds. The more we water the more we’re washing out nutrition.”
When it comes to fertilizer, Higgins recommended choosing one with extra nitrogen to increase foliage growth. Watering correctly is important, too, especially in the heat.
Tomatoes are among the most popular vegetable garden plants. The National Gardening Association estimates that upwards of 88 percent of home gardeners grow tomatoes in a given growing season. The juicy, red fruits are noticeably better homegrown and fresh picked, and are easy to grow in containers for gardeners living in small spaces.
It’s important to understand that how the plants are cared for is as important as them receiving the things they need to grow. For instance, don’t water them from overhead.
“You can get some damage from overhead watering, which of course is the big no no [as] it can cause burning,” Higgins said. “Think of a magnifying glass, you have water resting on a leaf and then the sun comes out and then what happens?”
Watering overhead also creates a perfect environment for fungal diseases like powdery mildew to flourish. Higgins said that a watering wand will help gardeners more easily water the soil and avoid foliage.
Kate Garland, horticultural specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that another issue to look out for is blossom end rot, where the fruit is blackened and flattened at its ends.
“There’s good news: tomato fungal pathogens are less likely to spread and thrive in these conditions,” Garland said. “If folks are not watering the foliage, common tomato pathogens, such as early blight and septoria leaf spot, are not as likely to spread and thrive in dry weather.”
Regular watering — once or twice a week, deeply, Garland said — and mulching to retain moisture will both help to prevent this disorder and keep your tomatoes healthy through the dry, hot season.
When it does rain, Garland said that it is helpful to use a rain gauge, which will tell you how much water your garden actually received. Gardeners often underestimate the amount of watering that results from a rainstorm.
Higgins also noted while tomatoes are popular and precious among home gardeners, they might not be the crops that are hardest hit by Maine’s hot, dry summer — those will likely be squash and other cucurbits.
“The lack of water on your plants like pumpkins [and other] things that produce large fruit are going to struggle this year,” Higgins said.
Higgins added that these crops will also be more susceptible to powdery mildew from overhead watering in the heat as well. An organic preventative, like Bonide Orchard Spray, applied every few weeks will help keep plants clear of this common fungal scourge.
“Don’t wait for a problem to be present,” Higgins said. “Try to be more proactive and prevent it from happening. Once you get a bad spurt of it you’re not getting rid of it you’re treating what’s there.”
In general, Higgins said not to get discouraged if this season has been a struggle, especially if you’re a new gardener.
“It’s important for all the new gardeners to know that every year is different,” Higgins said. “Some are good easy years for growing vegetables and some are not. It’s all part of the process.”