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Helen Chesnut's Garden Notes: Tomato plants thriving, despite dreadful start

Plants are growing and flowering surprisingly well, considering the chilly spring

Dear Helen: I am totally puzzled by my tomato plants. They are growing and flowering surprisingly well, despite their dubious start in dreary, cold weather. I grow them in a series of large pots, which are scrubbed clean and filled with fresh potting mix every spring. The only difference this year is that I added thin layers of compost mulch and grass clippings when I planted the tomatoes in their summer plots. I don’t usually mulch until the weather warms in July. Do you think the early mulching gave the plants a needed boost?


The mulch layers probably did, with watering, leach nutrients to the plant roots. But I planted my tomatoes for potting as usual this year and I’ve experienced the same surprise at wonderful plants as you. The potted tomatoes on the patio are as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen — strong, deep green, dotted with flowers and forming fruit, all in spite of a really dreadful start.

As the cold weather dragged on and the patio tomatoes awaiting transplanting continued deteriorating, I thought I’d have to relegate them to the compost and do without their tasty fruits this year.

As usual, I seeded the compact tomatoes destined for pots on the patio at the end of February. They germinated quickly and developed nicely through March. Ordinarily, the patio tomatoes would go into the unheated greenhouse in April, for moving into their pots and placing on the patio later in April or in early May.

This year’s cold spring weather extended the time they had to be held in the meagre protection of the greenhouse, where they continued to deteriorate. Finally, after weeks of waiting, I decided to plant the poor things and hope for the best.

I always incorporate a little fish compost into a potting mix I make with a Pro-Mix growing medium beefed up with a substantial, all-purpose potting mix such as Cinnebar Valley Premium Organic All-Purpose Potting Soil or Island’s Finest Organic Potting Mix. A little coconut fibre (coir) added to the mix enhances moisture retention and a natural-source, slow-release fertilizer eliminates the need to keep fertilizing the pots — except for a top-up with fish compost around mid-July.

Like you, I cannot fully account for the unusual perfection of the plants this year, especially considering their miserable start. Perhaps it was that long, challenging wait that led to the plants’ surging into vigorous growth at their final transplanting and with the first tiny hint of warmth in the air.

Dear Helen: Like most home gardeners, I take great pleasure in harvesting food from the garden for immediate use in a meal. My problem is with lettuce and other leafy greens. When I bring them in, wash and drain them, and toss them with a dressing for salad, that salad is limp. Is this something you have noticed and remedied?


I have noticed this issue, which is most pronounced in hot weather. I try to gather lettuces, endive and similar salad ingredients in the cool of the morning, though sometimes I don’t manage the task until later in the day.

Whenever the greens are gathered, for crisp salads I wash the leaves, drain them well in a colander, wrap them loosely in a clean tea towel and place the towel in a plastic bag. Then, a chilling in the fridge crisps the greens up nicely.

Just before a meal, to make a salad I mix a dressing in a large bowl and tear or cut the greens into the bowl and toss them gently to coat with the dressing.


Dahlia meeting. The Victoria Dahlia Society will meet Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in St. Michael’s church, 4733 West Saanich Rd. The program will be on maintaining healthy dahlias: disbudding, tying and so on, with questions and answers included. Visitors are welcome.

Lily show and sale. The Victoria Lily Society is hosting a Summer Scentsations Flower Show, Plant Sale and Tea on Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Broadview United Church, 2625 Arbutus Rd. Admission is by donation. Judged exhibits will include lilies, roses, perennials, succulents, grasses, fruits, vegetables and more. An English style tea with home-made scones and other treats will be available for $5. For sale will be a wide variety of lilies in one-gallon pots.