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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

A post-mortem on tomato season, plus winter care for a potted fig

Temperature, sunlight and even watering all play a

Temperature, sunlight and even watering all play a role in developing and ripening tomatoes. Credit: Pexels

Dear Jessica,

I have had no luck with fig trees and now would like to plant one in a 55-gallon drum and bring it indoors in the fall. What kind of soil do you recommend I use? — Val Bono, Manhasset

Dear Val,

Fig trees not only can thrive in containers, but can produce even more fruit when they’ve slightly overgrown their pot. Another benefit of growing figs this way is that you can move them around the garden to take advantage of available sunlight, as needed, and to a sheltered, indoor spot, such as a garage or basement, over winter.

You don’t say how large your tree is, or whether you’re planning to pot up a fig that’s already grown in the garden or start with a new one, but a 55-gallon drum may be too large. As mentioned above, figs do best when slightly pot bound, so I would not recommend oversizing the container. You’ll also need to consider its weight and size, as you will have to move it indoors and also find a spot for it. It’s possible that a 15- or 20-gallon container would suffice.

Regardless of the size pot you begin with, either replant your tree into a slightly larger container (with fresh potting mix) every three years, or remove the tree from its pot and trim its roots so that they fit comfortably in the same container (this will also keep its overall size more manageable.)

You should know that plants growing in containers require a lot more water (and nutrient amendments) than their in-ground counterparts, and that the soil may get hot and potentially damage the roots, so be sure to mulch the plant properly.

Use a sterile commercial potting mix that does not contain fertilizer, and after planting, top the soil with an inch of compost and an inch or so of mulch, ending about 2-3 inches below the container’s rim. Apply a slow-release dry fertilizer, according to package directions, every March. Additional nutrients can be provided by pushing away the mulch, top dressing the soil with more compost, and moving back the much on a monthly basis.

Over winter, you can move it into a dry and dark protected spot, like a garage or unheated basement, where it can remain dormant at a cool 30-50 degrees, or bring it into the house and keep it by your sunniest window. If you attempt the latter, ensure it receives a moderate to bright light exposure, set the container on a tray and water the soil until water runs out through the drainage holes. Allow the pot to remain on the tray for 10 minutes, and then discard the water that drained out. Let the soil dry out for a day or two between waterings. Depending on the humidity in the house, this will probably mean you’ll be watering about once a week.

In spring, set the pot outdoors in a shady spot for a few hours each day for a week to allow it to adjust to the garden and prevent shock. Then you can leave it outside for the season.

Dear Jessica,

My husband of forty years has always had a garden, starting his plants from seed, was always very bountiful, so much so that we supplied friends and family, and needed to procure additional freezer space. We always plant a good variety of tomatoes, and their seeds produced our plants for last summer. The difference from previous years, however, was we saw very, very sparse fruit setting, and none of the tomatoes ripened. They did not show any signs of disease.

Since the rest of our garden was very bountiful, can you explain what took place? My peppers, garlic, onions, squashes, string beans parsnips, lettuce, kale and other greens did not experience this problem. — Sigrid H. Brandt, Manorville

Dear Sigrid,

I, too, had a very sparse tomato crop last summer, harvesting less than a dozen fruits in total from my four plants.

Although tomatoes thrive in the heat, too much heat (extended periods with higher than 85- or 90-degree temperatures) will stifle ripening, resulting in large, green tomatoes. Too-cool summer temperatures, such as those we experienced last year, not only can delay ripening, but also may slow down the plants’ growth and fruit development.

Although many local growers had success with tomatoes during the mild summer of 2017, as evidenced by entrees in my Great Long Island Tomato Challenge in August, you and I — and many others — did not. Sun exposure and other environmental differences surely played a role.

If you’re certain your husband didn’t plant a green-variety tomato (sorry, but we do have to rule that out,) then what could have been done to help speed ripening would have been to remove some of the foliage to allow more sunlight to reach and help ripen fruit on the inner branches. Ensuring consistent moisture by watering more deeply and less frequently, and mulching, also would improve not only the amount but the quality of fruit. But sometimes, Mother Nature simply has upper hand.

Dear Jessica,

I just read your column about hibiscus, and I have a question.

I have a hibiscus and I’ve been bringing it inside in the winter for three years, placing it in the same spot in my sunroom, and it did pretty good and even kept blooming.

Last year, I think I brought it inside too early and suddenly and it got stressed but survived and recovered.

This season, I brought it inside in September or October, and it did well until a few weeks ago, when its leaves started wilting and turning yellow, similar to last year. What do you think happened and should I prune it or just leave it and see if it survives again? Should I keep watering? How much? — Gabriela Ceconi-Fallon, via email

Dear Gabriela,

The problem your plant experienced last year didn’t have anything to do with bringing it indoors too early. Whenever a hibiscus is indoors, it will decline and go into a semi-dormant state due to exposure to diminished sunlight. This is more evident during winter, when even outdoor daylight is reduced.

Leaves will turn yellow and drop, and sometimes the plant may look dead, but then surprise you in March with a flower. The important thing to remember is that it is not actually dead, and so will need to be placed in the sunniest available spot and watered when dry (although not as much as when it’s actively growing.)


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