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What Eggshells can (and can't) do for your Tomatoes

Q. On a recent show, you were helping a fellow with an apricot tree and he made reference to really liking a tip you had given on a previous show about eggshells for tomatoes. I have a limited area in which I can plant tomatoes and always have a problem with some sort of virus that kills the plants early in the season. I usually only get a few good fruits. Can you share this tip again?
    ---Jo Amy in Ventura, California
A. Sorry, Jo Amy; eggshells won't cure your problem. And I doubt that your tomatoes have a virus. The fact that you're forced to plant in the same spot year after year makes it much more likely that one of the soil-borne wilts has built up to plant-killing levels in your dirt. (In sunny Southern California, it would probably be fusarium wilt.) Try replacing all of the soil in your tomato beds or read our Previous Question of the Week on container gardening and grow your love apples in big pots this year; they should do fine.

Q. Mike: I have heard that pelletized calcium is effective against fusarium wilt.Where can I obtain this product? Thank you.

    ---Lou in Watertown, CT
A. It must be 'whisper down the lane' week! You can buy that form of calcium at lots of garden centers and from mail-order suppliers; it's a good alternative to the eggshells we'll soon be recommending for the prevention of blossom end rot. It also makes cucumbers crisper and is essential for fruit tree health. But it won't help with fusarium wilt. AND you don't have that soil-borne disease up in Connecticut, Lou! Although both types of wilt first make themselves known by turning the lower leaves of love apples yellow, Verticillium is the culprit in chilly climes. If one of the wilts IS the problem, rotate your crops or break out the pots. And DO add some calcium, for the reasons we will now explain.

Q. I live on top of a mountain with lots of sun and good soil, and can grow everything except tomatoes! They always turn black on the bottom just as they begin to ripen up. I have tried planting several different types, but to no avail. Can you help me?

    --John in Harrison Valley, PA (about a mile from the New York border)
I have planted many different types of tomatoes, both in the ground and in large planters outside. But just before the tomatoes are ripe enough to pick, the bottoms turn black. Am I watering them too much? Thanks.
    ----Mike; College ville, Pa
My Dad in North Carolina had brown spots on the bottoms of the Roma tomatoes he was growing in his "Earth Box" garden last season. I grow tomatoes in a similar 'self-watering garden-in-a-box' deal and have the same blackish-brown spots on the bottoms of my young tomatoes. But I have no problems in another box where I grow basil and eggplant! What's going on, Mike? Thanks!
    ---Dan in Virginia Beach
What can be done to stop or prevent the blossom end rot that attacked the two tomato plants I had growing in an Earth Box planter last year? I would hate to lose all of my tomatoes again! Thanks.
    ---Marlene in Wilmington DE
A. Tomatoes are very moisture-sensitive, and suffer more than other plants from over watering and uneven watering. That's why Dan's herbs and eggplant are doing fine in his self-watering containers while the tomatoes are struggling; they can't stand that constant supply of water and respond by browning and blackening out at the bottom—the tell-tale symptoms of blossom end rot.

And the Earth Boxes I've seen don't look like they hold enough soil to support a full-sized tomato plant. Certainly not two! So use those Earth Boxes for other plants and grow your tomatoes in big regular containers. A deep twelve-inch diameter pot is OK for a single small tomato plant; that's a well-behaved determinate 'bush' variety, like most paste (Roma) tomatoes. But a full sized beefsteak type requires a BIG 18-inch pot. AND only one tomato plant in that big pot. You can plant small things like flowers, salad greens, or nasturtiums around the edges, but only one love apple per container.

And whether it's in the ground or a pot, prevent blossom end rot by putting eggshells in the planting hole! Just return your empty shells to their egg carton and leave it sit out in the open so they can dry. When you plant your tomatoes, dig a deep hole, pull off the bottom leaves and plant half the stem in the ground, where it will grow auxiliary roots. Then crush the shells of a dozen eggs over top of the root ball, cover with compost or soil and that's it—no more blossom end rot. Guaranteed.

Not a disease, blossom end rot is what's called a 'cultural problem' (like this show). The tomato's hienie (the part that used to be a flower) turns black and starts to rot when the tomato plant sits in water or undergoes extremes of moisture. But calcium allows tomatoes to regulate their water supply so well they can take those extremes without rotting out. If you don't eat eggs, dissolve some calcium carbonate tablets and water them into the soil. Or add pelletized calcium at planting time. Or use a natural plant food that's enriched with calcium.

Adding calcium will also help your tomatoes develop the volatile aromatic oils that make love apples taste better. Calcium also makes cukes crisper—especially when you pickle them. And it keeps fruit trees happy and healthy.

Garcon! Another omelet!

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