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Advice from a pro gardener



Two questions nag at the Arkansas gardener in summer. Make that three — the first one being “Am I crazy to try to grow flowers in this heat?”

Answer: Depends on the flower. But back to the first two, which are a) why are my tomatoes so green and tall and fruitless and b) how often should I water my lawn and garden and how much?

The pink tomato is the state fruit of Arkansas, but we love any kind of garden-grown tomato here, from Brandywines to Beefsteaks. The Times went to Arkansas’s most famous gardener, P. Allen Smith, for his advice on how to make our tomato garden grow.

A caveat: Smith makes everything sound easy. Maybe it is. But here’s what he says with tomatoes: Plant as early as you can past hard frost; the earlier the flower heads appear, the better luck you’ll have with fruitset. (For greenhorn-would-be-greenthumbs out there: no flower, no fruit.) Plants don’t flower in Hell; they need a little relief from the heat when the sun goes down. When Arkansas gets to that part of summer when it’s hot at midnight, plants will shoot up, but fruit not. Smith plants in April for May flowers and tomatoes in June, and then plants more tomatoes during the dog days for fall fruiting. That way, he can eat BLTs for months on end.

Now, watering: It’s simple. Give your lawn and garden and good, deep drink of water a couple of times a week — an inch or more. Deep watering encourages plants to send their feet way below the quick-drying surface; light watering will encourage them to tiptoe near the surface. A parched root is an unhappy root. (A drowned root is no good either; if it’s just rained cats and dogs, lay off until the earth has returned to normal moisture.)

Dry day check

The garden will grow better in rainwater than tap water, since potable water contains chemicals plants don’t like. So where to get rain water? In rain barrels.

But what about West Nile virus, you ask? Won’t mosquitoes breed in the rain barrels and raise the risk that you and your bird life will become infected? Absolutely. So consider adding to the water products that contain the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, which is toxic to mosquito larvae but not people or plants. It’s sold in powder and “donuts.”

Note: There’s some controversy about the bacteria; Bt corn — bioengineered to contain Bacillus thuringiensis — was found to be toxic to monarch caterpillars. Websites that sell composters, rainbarrels and birdbaths will have more information.

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