The youthful blush of summer garden plants disappeared long ago. Tomatoes now look ragged, the basil won’t stop producing flowers, and some white, powdery stuff keeps ending up on your squash leaves. Fret not, some of these problems are easy to handle. The others will educate you in the art of acceptance (or toxic systemic pesticide use; your choice: zen or poison). You have gigantic plants that aren’t producing fruit – this has to be the most frustrating of summer garden issues. The big, beautiful plants attest to your garden mojo but the lack of fruit suggests otherwise… There are several reasons for this problem but the most likely culprit is soil that is too rich in nitrogen. I believe that I have precisely this problem in my own backyard garden and I do this for a living. You see, I went crazy with the compost this spring because I have a small space and can afford to lay it on thick. I have to go easy on the compost at work so I thought I’d live a little – let the compost rip and grow some big luscious fruit. The result was a jungle of foliage but absolutely no fruit. Let me repeat: not a single piece of fruit from three plants, all summer long. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about this issue except to learn from the experience and perhaps grow some fantastic beets in the same spot this winter. Perhaps we can commiserate at the farmers’ market while we buy tomatoes that somebody else grew.
You should remain hopeful, however, since there’s a chance that you’re having pollination issues. Though tomatoes are self-fertile (they don’t need pollen from another plant to set fruit) the flowers still need to be stimulated to release pollen. Honeybees might help a bit but it is bumblebees that are the principle pollinators for most tomato gardens. Flicking the flowers with your finger or stimulating them (ahem) with an electric toothbrush to mimic the buzzing of the bees should help the flowers release pollen to fertilize their own ovaries (which you and I call tomatoes). Commercial greenhouses use a tuning fork. Middle-C is the best note; who knew that tomatoes had a tonal preference?
If bumblebees and carpenter bees are abuzz in your garden, then it is likely that your plants have been sufficiently pollinated. The next potential issue to cross off your list is temperature. Prolonged and intense humidity, extremely hot days, and extremely cool nights can all prevent the plants from setting fruit. If you live in Southern California and you’re reading this in the summer of 2013, it’s unlikely that temperature is to blame.
This all assumes that you have given your plants at least six hours of decent sunlight a day. Less than that and your plants just might not set. If you must grow your plants in a somewhat shady spot, you should try growing cherry, grape, and currant tomatoes next year. If you really crave some big and juicy slicers then go for a hybrid like “Early Girl” or “Champion”. Do these varieties have the interesting flavours and textures of an heirloom? Certainly not! But they do pump out the fruit in less-than-favourable conditions and a bird-in-hand is better than two delicious birds in the bush. Good luck … and stay tuned for the next installment of “Late Summer Woes in the Kitchen Garden,” when we tackle those gnarly black spots and cracks that can ruin a perfectly good fruit or vegetable.
~Jonathan Duffy Davis