Where's the Beefsteak?

An undersize beefsteak variety in Walsh's garden.
An undersize beefsteak variety in Walsh's garden. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Is it getting tougher to raise a decent tomato?

Many backyard tomato growers are reporting a particularly poor showing this year, with scrawny, diseased vines and pathetic harvests.

Megan Gardner, a Virginia Cooperative Extension horticulturist and tomato troubleshooter, has heard two telling comments in her travels in Virginia's Middle Peninsula: Folks complain "that nobody has offered them extra tomatoes this year," she said. "When those who have extra tomatoes gave them away, everyone took them."

Tomatoes fail for a host of reasons, some in the gardener's control, others not. One theory is that high heat and related tomato stress this summer are another product of global warming.

Whatever the cause, gardeners are looking afresh -- and askance -- at what was believed to be not only an easy summer vegetable but a birthright for city patio farmers and suburban ranchers alike.

"People hold them close to their hearts," said Gardner, "but I think they're fairly difficult for a home gardener" to grow successfully.

Chuck Ropp of Arlington was among a dozen growers contacted to assess the crop. He said this in an e-mail: "I grew up on a farm and have always gardened. This is by far the worst year I have ever had." Two seedlings died after planting in late April, two more lacked vigor and were pulled, and six others have limped along. He also grew two beefsteak varieties that have suffered from blossom end rot, a disease linked to uneven watering and calcium deficiency, even though he has been seeing to them. "The heirloom varieties that I planted did not get the rot, but several did not flower," he wrote.

In the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Germaine Schaefer put in 14 plants, including four cherry varieties and assorted heirlooms and hybrids. "Cosmonaut Volkov was the first to die, then the Mountain Princess got the yellow wilt," she said, referring to a foliar disease called early blight. Another common ailment is Septoria leaf spot. A Green Zebra and beefsteak have languished, and plants from the local farmers market, which produced well at first, are moribund.

"The Brandywines were a bust," she said. "We had four: one we have eaten and three the squirrels have eaten." She shares the garden with a neighbor. "With 14 plants I was hoping to be inundated with tomatoes," she said. "Instead, it's just been a decent harvest, giving both our families [a total of six people] enough for daily meals, but not enough to share with others."

Some backyard gardeners report a fairly normal harvest, though with plants that fruited early or with cherry tomatoes, which are typically more robust and fruitful than larger types. Enriched soil, soaker hoses and, in some cases, plastic mulch, helped to keep more moisture in the soil than in tomato patches without those elements.

"The cherry varieties were prolific, but I've also had many fruits from the white peach, a Black Russian [variety], the Marmande, and some others," said Jaye Falls, of Annapolis.

But there are far more losers than winners this season, judging by readers who e-mailed and my own observations of gardens -- including, alas, my own. In Wheaton, Craig Kent can tally his harvest of keepers on one hand, with a finger and thumb to spare. "The worst year that I can recall," he said by e-mail.

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