While April showers bring May flowers, the month of May is the official start of the season for warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers.
Why May? By the time Memorial Day rolls around, May's soil is toasty warm, a condition that tomatoes and peppers need in order to establish good root growth before flowering and fruiting time.
Tomatoes and peppers, which can be planted in large pots or in the ground, are popular among all types of gardeners, including people who have little yard space, according to local garden centers. Succession planting, or staggering your plantings for extended harvests, means you can have tomatoes and other veggies into late fall. Tomatoes, which need full sun and regular water, are easily planted into mid-July.
"There are more than 700 types of tomatoes, and we offer 110 tomato and 43 pepper varieties," says Tish Llaneza of Countryside Gardens in Hampton.
"Many have been recommended by customers over the years. All have pictures and stories on our Pinterest page, http://www.pinterest.com/csgardens. And, our herbs, come from A Thyme to Plant, the largest organic herb farm in Virginia."
The vegetable garden is a great way to spend quality time and harvest quality food for the table, according to retired Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Jim Orband of Yorktown.
"There are minimum requirements when growing vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, the salad vegetables – eight-plus hours of sun, access to water and routine monitoring of the plants," Orband said.
You can call in tomato and other gardening questions to him monthly, including noon-1 p.m. Thursday, June 19, during his live program on the "HearSay" public radio program on WHRV-FM 89.5. Email questions to email@example.com or call 440-2665 on the show day.
"Watering needs to be done early in the day and the water needs to be applied around the base of the plant and not on the plants foliage. Use a porous mulch around your plants, such as pine needles that will help conserve water, reduce water evaporation, and reduce the spread of early blight disease."
Here, meet local gardeners with some of their tips on growing great vegetables in any season:
Larry Nisley in Hampton
"Our spring season remained cooler longer than expected, so cool crops held on longer," says Larry Nisley a Hampton master gardener and employee at McDonald Garden Center in Hampton.
"I recently removed old spring crops to prevent insects carrying over to my new crop and any diseases that might survive on the surface of the soil," he said.
"My raised bed had an outstanding selection of leaf lettuces, radishes, onions and spinach. Successive planting was one of my efforts this year for a constant crop of cool-season crops. Now, I'm in transition to summer crops."
Nisley suggests adding a thin layer of compost to recharge your soil for summer crops. This can be done before or after your plants have been placed, and are growing.
Garden lime is important especially for tomatoes, peppers, squash and watermelon plants, he adds. Lime helps prevent blossom end rot that occurs later into the summer growing season.
"I use and recommend Bio-Tone by Espoma when you plant tomatoes," he said. "I also recommend planting tomato's in a slanted angle into the ground but also use Bio-tone to encourage greater root development."
During the growing season, Nisley uses a top dressing of Tomato-tone around the plant stem every two weeks. Tomato-tone has lime in the fertilizer which helps prevent blossom-end rot.
"I use a palm size or three tablespoons sprinkled around each plant," he said.
To deter diseases and pests in the veggie garden, Nisley recommends proper spacing for good air circulation and light penetration.
"New gardeners tend to crowd too many plants in a small space which can create an environment for bugs and diseases," he said.
"Proper spacing of 24 inches between tomato plants and proper staking systems helps eliminates problems, especially when growing indeterminate tomatoes. The use of basil, garlic, marigold and alyssum help prevent bad bugs and invite good bugs."
If worm-like caterpillars bother tomato plants, he recommends the use of Dipel dust with Bacillus Thuringiensis, sometimes known simply as Bt. It's also available in a liquid form called Thuricide, he said.
Slugs can be controlled organically with iron phosphate, which is found in a product called Slug Magic by Bonide. Neem oil is an earth-friendly solution for fungus, he adds.
"Inspect your crops regularly to help prevent and solve problems," he says.
Learning Garden in Poquoson
Master Gardeners demonstrate several simple and easy ways to grow vegetables at their Learning Garden in Poquoson, according to master gardener Noel Talcott.
"For someone who would like an easy, high-yield way to grow vegetables, consider raised bed or square-foot gardening," he says.
The advantages of raised beds include:
•No digging or tilling is required. The beds are 18-inches high, but they are built with false bottoms that sit on cinder blocks and are only filled with 8 inches of soil. In low areas or areas prone to flooding, this prevents waterlogged beds.
•The beds are filled with an appropriate soil mix that almost guarantees success. At the Learning Garden, seeds germinate and sprout within days.
•The beds are topped with a decking board, which makes it convenient to sit while planting, watering or harvesting.
•For growing tomatoes in raised beds, the Learning Garden uses a novel trellis concept that connects two 3-by-10-foot planting beds. The trellis supports the tomato plants and enables a gardener to pick from the inside of the trellis too.
For more information on square-foot gardening, go to http://www.squarefootgardening.com.
Straw bale gardening is another simple and easy way to grow vegetables, and a fun way to introduce kids to edible gardening – something master gardeners are doing with third-graders at Poquoson Elementary School.
Advantages of straw bales:
•The technique requires no digging and costs little to get started.
•The bales can be placed on any surface, and added to the compost pile at the end of the planting season.
"Straw bale gardening is simply a different type of container gardening," says Talcott.
"The main difference is that the container is actually the straw bale itself, the outside crust of the bale serves as the container. During a 12-day conditioning process, the straw inside the bale begins to decompose, creating an extraordinarily productive, warm, moist and nutrient rich rooting environment for young seedlings. Once conditioned, you plant directly on or in the bales."
For more information on straw bale gardening, go to http://strawbalegardens.com.
"Folks are welcomed to come out and see what we are doing in the Learning Garden," Talcott said.
Steve Dodson in York County
Steve Dodson, a master gardener in York County, celebrated his very first birthday in Hilton Village in Newport News, where he lived for almost 60 years. It's also where he first gardened with his grandfather, L.V. Lucas.
"I believe I have always had a garden of some sort, even as a child living in Hilton, where I used to sell a newspaper called GRIT, just so I could buy radish seeds from Mayo's," said Dodson who is now 70.
"I had a garden when I was married and living in Hilton and our garden was always on the Pink Flamingo Garden Tour. And I have a garden today, here in York County. This garden is 36-by-60 feet.
"As for tomatoes – I love 'em! I have 12 different varieties planted this year (and I told my wife I was cutting back) with over five dozen plants in the garden, all of which I started from seed."
Dodson favors one determinate Roma tomato that does not need staking because it grows to a moderate size. He describes it as a tried-and-true Italian paste-type tomato, one that pretty much ripens all at once and he and wife, Merrilyn, quick can it for sauces.
In addition, he has 11 different indeterminate tomatoes that grow large enough to require staking – a mixture of hybrid and heirloom types, which ripen at different times.
"I stake these tomatoes, as-opposed-to putting them in wire cages," he said.
"By doing it this way, I check the plants more frequently than if they were in cages, constantly looking for the overall well-being of the tomatoes, as to insects pests and diseases."
If you're into gardening books, he recommends two on tomatoes – "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden" by Carolyn J. Male and "The Great Tomato Book" by Gary Ibsen with Joan Nielsen.
Contact Kathy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New tomatoes from Bonnie Plants (www.bonnieplants.com) include:
Indigo Rose tomato is ripe when skin turns from shiny blue-purple to dull purple-brown and the bottoms of the fruit turn from green to red.
San Marzano tomato is teardrop shaped with a meaty, sweet and complex flavor that's especially ideal for pasta sauce.
Tumbling Tom red or yellow tomato cascades from hanging baskets, tall containers or window boxes, giving you four pounds of tomatoes per plant.
Biltmore tomato features thick skins that keep well on vines without cracking. One plant tucked into a half whiskey barrel makes a container garden.
Container's Choice tomato grows 18-48 inches tall, and its bushy growth habit makes it suitable for large pots.
Kathy Hogan Van Mullekom@Facebook