If you like watery, tasteless tomatoes, you don't need to buy them at the store.
You can grow your own!
Here's how: Ignore your soil and overcompensate with fertilizer.
Tasteless tomatoes are among a range of gardening disappointments that can be traced to poor soil and soil management, say horticulturists and others.
Drought only amplifies those disappointments if gardeners fail to tend to the soil.
“Soil is the least exciting but most important part of gardening,” said Jan Riggenbach, a biologist and The World-Herald's syndicated gardening columnist.
Riggenbach said she can taste the difference between tomatoes grown in rich, healthy soils and tomatoes that have had their growth artificially fueled by fertilizer.
“It makes a huge difference in taste. They don't taste near as good,” she said.
Other problems related to poor soil:
• Greater vulnerability to over- or under-watering.
• Gorgeously lush greenery but few flowers or produce.
• Vulnerability to disease.
• Stunted growth.
During times of drought, healthy soil is a gardener's first line of defense, Riggenbach said.
Healthy soil holds water better, makes it easier for plants to breathe and stay cool, and provides the wider range of micro nutrients needed for robust growth.
Adding compost is the key to restoring soils exhausted by last year's drought, Riggenbach said.
“Temperatures were just so hot last year that it would have burned up more of the humus in the soil,” she said. “Organic matter burns up when it's so hot.”
Soil is so important, especially during drought, that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension is writing a soil-drought guide for gardeners, said horticulturist Natalia Bjorklund from the Dodge County Extension Office, one of the guide's authors.
“Ultimately, soil is going to dictate the health of your plants,” Bjorklund said.
The guide, geared to conditions in the Midlands, will be posted online in the next couple months at www.extension.unl.edu.
Riggenbach and Bjorklund say the key to healthy soil is straightforward: compost.
Whether your soil has too much clay or too much sand, the solution will be compost, Riggenbach said.
“You don't have to know a lot about soils,” Riggenbach said. “The amazing thing is compost or organic matter will help no matter what.”
Compost should be added annually, she said.
If you purchase compost, follow package directions. Some commercially available versions, including Oma-Gro, are so “hot” that applying too much will stunt growth or send the plant into overdrive, resulting in lush greenery but few vegetables.
If you make your own compost, apply as much as you have, as long as your compost isn't made from plants tainted by herbicides, Riggenbach said. And don't worry if your compost is messy with twigs, leaves and other plant debris, she said. That material will continue to decompose in your garden.
Well-balanced, homemade compost is made from equal parts green and brown plant matter so that there's a proper ratio of nitrogen and carbon.
A good rule of thumb is to apply 1 inch of compost to each 2 inches of soil that you till, Bjorklund said.
Bjorklund also suggests that you get your soil tested before starting your garden. She said this will help you avoid one of the most common gardening mistakes: overfertilizing.
UNL county extension offices offer low-cost soil test kits.
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