Answer Man: Go easy on the nitrogen for tomato plants

News-DemocratAugust 5, 2013 

Q. I have a small garden with a half-dozen Jet Star tomato plants. Every year the plants are big and healthy, but the tomatoes themselves are always small and few in number. Can you tell me what my problem might be? -- M.R., of Columbia

A. Just as you would by spending afternoons at a steakhouse buffet, your tomato plants may be getting too much of a good thing.

At least, that's the hypothesis of News-Democrat gardening expert Charles Giedeman. Think about it: If you constantly spent several hours a day scarfing down steak, taters, and cheesy broccoli, you, too, would blossom in size. But how productive would you feel when you returned to the office? Probably not very.

So when Giedeman hears about rich, lush plants with retarded fruit growth, he immediately targets a common culprit: They're getting too much nitrogen.

"What the nitrogen does is stimulate leaf and stem growth, but it will inhibit fruit production," he told me. "It's giving it a chemical signal to grow but not to produce fruit."

Although levels vary, nitrogen occurs naturally in soil. During storms, for example, the lightning will produce nitrogen, which is then washed to the earth by the rain. But if your soil has adequate nitrogen and then you add a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, it's like you eating a few extra pieces of cheesecake.

"If the plant is extremely dark green, that's another sign (there's too much nitrogen)," Giedeman said. "After a while, he may start seeing aphids, too, because the leaves are going to be so thin because they're growing so quickly that the aphid can suck the plant sap out."

Unfortunately, having your soil tested won't help because there's no reliable test that calculates nitrogen levels. So Giedeman suggests a couple of things: First, cut back on or stop using fertilizer.

"I would say he has a very fertile soil, and he's probably throwing fertilizer on it, and that's just tripping it up too high," he said.

If that doesn't do the trick, you might try adding some organic matter that will tie up some of the nitrogen in the soil as the matter starts to do decay. This should be dark compost consisting of leaves and straw -- not green like fresh grass clippings, which won't help the problem.

Of course, this diagnosis is being made from sketchy information. So if this nitrogen-reduction diet fails to invigorate your plant's fruit production next year, feel free to write back and we'll try our next educated guess.

Q. For the past few years, I have listened to Don Imus on the radio in the morning. Now, I have lost him. Has he moved to another station? -- Judith Farrow, of Collinsville

A. You just need to set up a computer next to your scrambled eggs in order to hear your favorite grizzled veteran of the airwaves.

According to his website, the man who once was a Southern Pacific Railroad brakeman and singer-songwriter has his show on only two outstate Missouri stations -- Springfield and Cape Girardeau -- and none at all in Illinois.

But if you punch up www.imus.com on your electronic gizmos, you can listen live to the one-time disc jockey who reportedly was fired early in his 45-year radio career for saying "hell" on the air.

Better yet, for $6.95 a month (or $54.95 a year), you can subscribe to Inside Imus, through which you can download commercial-free broadcasts and receive priority emails from Imus, who celebrated his 73rd birthday on July 23.

Q. Each morning my husband does the Sudoku puzzle in your paper. On Sundays there are two puzzles, but the font size of one is larger than the other. Why? -- C.S., of Fairview Heights

A. It's the same reason that the second puzzle looks a little different with the four shaded grids.

According to our copy desk editor Jason Koch, we run one standard, all-white puzzle distributed by one company each day of the week. But to double your fun on Sunday, we buy a second puzzle from another supplier. For whatever reason, that other company thinks the shaded grids and larger numbers make solving those dastardly things less of a torture.

Today's trivia

What movie's title reportedly came from a film star's classic telephone greeting -- even though the actor later was forced off the movie?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Actress-model Lauren Hutton is now well-known for that gap between her front teeth. But early in her career, Hutton, who was born Mary Laurence Hutton, was advised to fill it in. So she first applied morticians' wax and cut a line in the middle of it. Then, she tried a cap, which she inevitably would swallow, spit out or misplace. Finally, she said the heck with it and proudly sported the "imperfection," saying it gave her a down-home appeal other models lacked. She apparently was right. About to turn 70 on Nov. 17, Hutton has graced Vogue's cover a record 26 times.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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