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Margaret Lauterbach: From chiles to tomatoes, the key is watering

Many garden problems are the result of watering — overwatering or underwatering. Few plants tolerate a total lack of water and only bog plants really tolerate wet “feet” for prolonged times. Gardeners must adjust or lose their crop.

I know some people who grow habanero chiles, which are usually very piquant, although they can’t tolerate super-hot foods. Why do they grow them? They love the flavor, so they grow them in a way that moderates heat. That is, they coddle the plants.

Abundant fertilizer and copious water moderate the heat of those usually fiery chiles. Conversely, folks who want more heat can intensify it in their garden by watering chile plants lightly and fertilizing sparingly. If we have a cool summer, more heat can be supplied by using a mulch of stones around the plant. They’ll absorb sun heat and release it slowly overnight.

Watering chile plants less than you’re used to may result in blossom end rot unless you hold moisture in the soil with a thick mulch. Then the soil should stay moist, allowing the plant to take in calcium. Remember, blossom end rot occurs because there’s a lack of calcium, and that lack is usually due to improper watering. Plants can only take up calcium when the soil is moist.

At times it’s difficult to tell whether a damaged chile pod is sunburned or has blossom end rot. Planting chile plants close together reduces the chance of sunburn.

You can cut off the portion of chile sunburn or blossom end rot and use the rest of the pod, but sunburn on tomatoes is fatal. The fruit turns white and hard, and is inedible. I don’t like tomatoes that have blossom end rot, but you can cut off the rot portion and use the rest.

If you live in the Valley bottom, you probably won’t encounter hardpan under your soil. Bedrock lies deep there. If there’s no hardpan such as caliche or clay, tomato roots can probe deep in the soil, up to about 20 feet, taking in nutrients from the depths. For that reason, I’m opposed to watering tomatoes with a sprinkler. Sprinkler water doesn’t penetrate very deeply, and splashing water from sprinklers conveys soil-borne disease to foliage.

Advice for growing tomatoes

Tomato plants can grow very well here, with deep watering once a week. Some people prune “suckers” from their tomato plants. I think those people love sunburned tomatoes. I never prune tomato plants and neither do the experts I respect: Dr. Carolyn Male and Craig Le Houllier.

Both are scientists with Ph.D.s in non-horticulture disciplines. LeHoullier is a chemist, Male is a microbiologist. They (and I) have learned that tomatoes do not have to be bathed in sunlight to ripen.

Dr. Male’s book, “100 Heirloom Tomato Varieties for the American Garden,” has been out for a few years. Le Houllier is author of the new book, “Epic Tomatoes, How to Grow and Select the Best Varieties of All Time.” For years those two also authored a newsletter devoted to tomatoes, titled “Off the Vine.” Le Houllier now is breeding dwarf tomatoes, shorter plants with old fashioned large tomatoes.

Incidentally, he’s grown over 1,000 varieties of tomatoes, and his six favorites are Anna Russian, Cherokee Purple, Hugh’s, Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine and Ruby Gold. Anna Russian has not produced well in my garden, and Hugh’s is a pale yellow tomato that, after being picked, decayed before I could get it into the house. A friend had the same problem with it in Boise, but another friend, planting from the same seed packet, loved that tomato. Ruby Gold has been renamed Gold Medal by some seed vendors.

Male’s other favorites do well here and in the East, where Le Houllier and Male garden.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.