Blossom End Rot and a possible solution for our tomatoes.

Tomatoes are starting to roll in faster than we can consume them:  I can see about 15 or so chilling out on the windowsill from here, and I’ve already frozen 2 quarts full for soup and sauce.  While I’m happy to have enough to snack on now, I can’t help but feel sad about the Ones That Got Away.  We’ve had to pick off a lot of fruit that have shown evidence of blossom end rot, just like we do every year.  Its really frustrating to see half of the tomatoes you’ve worked so hard to cultivate start getting mushy and discolored at the bottom before they even begin to ripen.

Blossom end rot is commonly attributed to a calcium uptake deficiency in the overall plant.  This can happen either due to low soil calcium levels or overfertilization with products high in nitrogen, magnesium, or phosphorus, which can compete with calcium for uptake in the plant.  There is no way to determine if this is the case for your particular soil without a soil test.  Fortunately I live near a large university with agricultural research facilities, so a former roommate got my soil tested for me a while back (slightly acidic, otherwise fairly normal).  You can get information about testing your own garden soil through your local Cooperative Extension Service.  If all signs point to soil normalcy, then chances are you’ve got inconsistent hydration as your main factor in blossom end rot development.

This is more than likely the #1 factor for the Roth and Roll garden.  With the intense summer heat and drought it has been a challenge to keep everything adequately watered.  Most plants, especially tomatoes in fruit, require at least an inch of water a week to survive high temperatures.  Ideally this hydration would be applied all at once, so it deeply saturates the entire root area, but that is unlikely to happen without a perfectly-planned long lasting thunderstorm each week.  Instead, I’ve been standing by with the hose for a couple of hours a few times a week, thinking I was watering well.  I read of an ingenious technique of putting an empty clean cat food can in the garden and seeing how long it takes to fill it with regular watering:  since your average cat food can is about an inch high, its a good gauge for how much is actually making it into the ground.  When I did this, I was shocked to find that I’ve only been watering about 1/4 of what I should have been to meet even the basic needs of my plants!  UGH!  No wonder I have garden problems!

But I can’t stand out there in the yard four times as long.  I do actually have a job and a social life.  Well, sort of.

So how to solve my problem, and satisfy the local water-police as we move into water restriction time?  Drip irrigation.

Use of a slow-drip system is truly the most efficient way to water your garden:  around 90% of the water is actually utilized by the plant vs. 50-70% in typical overhead watering scenarios (evaporation being the primary concern).  Because the slow drip maintains more even soil moisture, root systems are able to grow stronger and withstand stressors, leading to a more hearty plant.  The use of water only at the root site also contributes to less spreading of fungal and other soil-borne diseases, as these are not splashing from the soil to the foliage as is typical with the overhead watering.  This may be part of another problem we’re having with some of the tomatoes we’ve had to pull, but that’s another post.  🙂  So the research has been done and its time to make a financial commitment.

There are multiple websites which sell and instruct on installation of your own drip irrigation system, or you can go to your local home and garden center and see what they have to offer.  They are not extremely cost-prohibitive as they are expected to last for many years.  I am currently awaiting my kit to arrive and looking forward to installing it (rather, I’m looking forward to the installation being complete.  It will be time consuming, that’s for sure.  There will be beer.  Many cold beers.).  I plan on putting it on a timer, so that it is consistently watered at a time of day that works best for the garden and for us (early morning, but NOT when we’re trying to shower and get ready for the ol’ day jobs).  I also won’t have to worry about underwatering while we’re having some vacation time in a few weeks!

Once the tubing is installed, covering it with mulch also protects the tubing as well as prevents evaporation.

I’m looking forward to this experience, and the lush growth that will hopefully come our way.

(tomato image above courtesy of http://www.caes.uga.edu)

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