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What the Heck Happened to My Tomatoes This Year?!

Q: Anne in Takoma Park, Maryland writes: "Mike! Can you tell me why all of our tomatoes split open just as they ripened up this year? I say it's from the enormous amount of rain we had, but my husband doesn't believe me. Thanks!"

A. And you thought this would be the first time in history the husband was right, Anne? Sheesh!
Anyway, yes—ginormous amounts of rain will cause most varieties to split; the fruit simply fills up with more water than the skin can contain. Pick these split fruits right away and use them to make tomato sauce.
In the future, read catalog descriptions carefully and choose varieties that are said to 'resist cracking and splitting'. Such tomatoes are bred to have thicker skins. As am I.

Q. Roslyn writes: "Hi Mike! I recently moved from Connecticut to Carnation, Washington (40 minutes outside of Seattle, west of the Cascades). I followed all your advice and grew tomatoes successfully in Connecticut for over 10 years. The prevailing consensus out here is that you can't grow tomatoes except in a greenhouse because of the rain. (The funny thing is, Connecticut got more rain and is much more humid than this part of Washington.)

"I believe my tomatoes have a disease known as Septoria. I've constructed raised beds filled with topsoil, perlite and compost, plus two inches of compost on top. I water deeply and only with drip irrigation and space the plants far apart. I waited until it warmed up in June to put my (home-grown) seedlings out.

"I'm also growing varieties recommended for this area by local seed companies (mostly early beefsteaks and cherry tomatoes). This is the first year I'm growing anything in these beds, let alone tomatoes. So how did I get blight, or am I just paranoid? I'm getting yellow leaves starting at the bottom of the plants and working up. Then brown spots surrounded by yellow. I'm removing the discolored leaves but seem to be removing a lot of them.

"As I write to you in August, fruit is setting but not as much as I'm used to. I am enclosing some pictures. Is there anything I can do? I love my tomatoes and devote half my garden beds to them---which I've been told is totally not a Pacific Northwest garden thing!"

A. After a careful look at your photos I see no sign of 'blight', which is good because TRUE blight—meaning the same pathogen that caused the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1860s is a nasty actor. It is also hard to mistake. Blight causes the leaves of your tomato (or potato) plants to develop greasy round spots. Then the fruits get greasy round spots on them. Then the whole plant quickly turns dead and black. And dead. Hard to confuse with lesser ailments, which is why researchers use the Biblical term 'blight'.

Anywho, your symptoms do sound like one of the soil-borne wilts that strike tomatoes that have grown in the same place several years in a row. I'd suggest that maybe tomatoes grew there before you entered the picture, but more likely it was just too {bad word} wet this summer. And more importantly, your photos show tomato plants more crowded than a Japanese subway car at rush hour on a Friday.

Roslyn responds:

Q. "I'm so glad it isn't blight! I've always followed the seed packet directions of spacing for my tomato seedlings. I took a look at your recommendations, and you recommend at least a foot between mature plants. Does that mean a four foot seedling space on center in rows next time? What about between rows? It would be good to plan so that I don't have to move or rip out mature plants."

A. Honest answers always take local conditions into account. You are in a situation where excessive moisture and lack of sun and heat is/are always going to be an issue, so more space between plants will always equal better results. My basic plan is to cage plants inside a two-foot footprint and then insure a foot of airflow between the caged plants. Your plants are instead on top of each other—a death knell in your historically wet region.

In regions like yours with short wet seasons, you must grow tomatoes with the shortest days to maturity. (It's on every seed packet; you're looking for numbers 75 days or under.) You must also space them further apart than people in normal regions—just one tomato in each raised bed, surrounded by herbs, flowers and other smallish plants that don't block airflow. You will get more tomatoes from four plants with such a plan than twelve plants jammed together.

If you are super-competent at raising fabulous starts (short, stocky and vibrantly green) continue to do so. But few gardeners are; and if your starts instead look like Minute Bol, give it up and buy good ones.

And finally, if your climate is honestly a bit too short and a bit too cool for proper tomato prorogation, yes—invest in a little mid-season-only greenhouse and your love apple production will double—maybe better.

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