If I had to strip my garden to one item, it would be the tomato. I am stupid in love with tomatoes, and am counting the days for the first heavenly bite of garden-grown fruit. But one must be patient – 60 days for the Juliet, 80 days for the Brandywine, etc.

I rely on tomato tips from Mike McGrath, the “Garden Guru” whose wit and humor enliven local news station WTOP. McGrath calls tomatoes the “drama queens of the garden” and “the gateway drug of gardening.” I agree.

From him, we learned that crushed egg shells provide calcium to grow sturdy stems so the branches can stand up to the heavy tomato fruit. We dutifully collect egg shells for months before we plant, and then crush them into the soil. McGrath recommends a dozen egg shells per hole. We also enrich the soil with rich worm castings (aka worm poop) from CRR’s vast composting enterprise.

McGrath says early May is the optimum time for planting tomatoes – once temps at night rarely dip below 50 degrees. He is fierce about watering: only in the early morning and only at the ground level: “Never let your leaves get wet.”

First tomatoes of 2011

First tomatoes of 2011

McGrath has other no-nos:

  • Do not tread unnecessarily on the ground around your tomatoes because you are compacting the roots which need to spread underground for maximum fruit.
  • Do not plant your tomatoes in the same spot every year. Crop rotation will prevent verticillium, a disease that will kill your tomatoes.
  • Never prune the suckers that grow from every tomato plant because every green leaf provides nutrient to the fruit. “Only suckers cut the suckers,” he says. Ouch – I sheepishly discard one of my own tomato-growing practices.