Margaret Lauterbach

Everyone has tricks for their tomatoes, but the best one might be to just wait

Tomatoes bear fruit in their own time, so it’s important to be patient.
Tomatoes bear fruit in their own time, so it’s important to be patient. AP file

There are some gardening techniques that seem to make no sense at all, but they work. Sometimes a tomato plant, for instance, isn’t producing fruit when it should. Temperatures are within fruiting range (less than 90 degrees daytime, above 50 degrees at night); it has not been given a lot of nitrogen that would lead the plant to produce foliage rather than fruit; it has adequate sun exposure and moisture; and it doesn’t have a disease. In such a case, getting the plant’s “attention” may involve root pruning or whipping.

Some folks prune roots of a plant whose attention they’re rousing by inserting a spade vertically into soil about a foot from the plant, and continuing to spade around the plant that far from the stalk. It removes some outer roots but leaves most intact. Other folks opt to whip the plant. I think the reason these drastic techniques may work is that such brutal treatment threatens the survival of the plant. A friend’s grandmother (from another country) chose to whip their tomato plants to increase production, and the family was embarrassed, so asked her to whip at night so the neighbors wouldn’t see her. She said it did work. I wouldn’t flail a plant to pieces, since the leaves are feeding the plant. I’ve never had courage to root prune a plant, and I haven’t had to take such drastic measures. Tomatoes bear fruit in their own time.

I don’t prune suckers out of tomato plants, nor do I recommend it. Tomatoes do not need direct sun exposure to ripen; they just need time and moderate temperatures. Removing foliage (suckers) exposes fruit to direct sun, which might result in sunscald. When that happens, the fruit is not edible. Whenever I see an exposed fruit that looks vulnerable to sunscald, I pick it to ripen indoors. High daytime temperatures are not conducive to tomato ripening. At sustained temperatures above 85, they stop ripening. I pick tomatoes when they begin to color, partly to foil squirrels from biting into them in search of water. We don’t maintain a water source in the backyard because we don’t want to encourage depredation by raccoons.

It’s normal for gardeners to grow impatient, wanting ripe tomatoes early in summer. Thus it’s very important for us to watch the “days to harvest” information on seed packets. Those numbers vary from about 50 (considered very early) to 90 and above (late). We count days for plants that are usually transplanted (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, for instance) from the date of transplant, not the date you sowed the seed. Dates to harvest for seeds that are directly sowed into the garden, such as radishes, carrots or beans, count from the time the seeds are sown.

▪  If you’re growing squash, you’ve undoubtedly been trying to save your plants from their toxic bites. They lay clusters of red shiny eggs on the undersides of squash leaves, or lines of them on petioles (leaf stems). Sprays don’t seem to faze those armor-plated adults, but Neem destroys the feeding urge of nymphs, so they die. Even the nymphs can kill a squash plant, so the key to control is to eliminate the eggs or plant squash varieties they’re not crazy about. I scrape eggs off with fingernail onto soil, so hatchlings will starve. I have also sprayed them with Neem that effectively prevents eggs from hatching, but remembering where one has sprayed is nearly impossible, and you can run through a $12 can of spray before the season has ended. Some folks use a lint roller to remove eggs from leaves.

Those gardeners who don’t have mulch under squash plants put small boards under squash plant leaves, picking them up each morning and grabbing the sleepy adult squash bugs, dropping them into a bucket of hot soapy water. I lost squeamishness a long time ago, and when I see an adult, I either grab and squish it with a bare hand or spray it with homemade slug spray (50% household ammonia, 50% water). That makes them run away rapidly, and since I later find dead adults, I suspect it kills them, but I don’t know for certain.

Last year I planted squash next to a path overgrown by mint, and had almost zero problems with squash bugs. I’ve also heard that some folks use cotton balls saturated with peppermint oil in squash beds to repel squash bugs. If all else fails, plant climbing zucchini (usable both as summer or winter squash), zucchini or butternut squash. I’ve not lost those plants to squash bug bites, but more exotic varieties succumb early in the season.

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