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'Who plants tomatoes in July?’: Locals try to salvage summer crops after garden pest problems

Posted at 11:59 AM, Aug 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-04 13:59:43-04

MERIDIAN, Idaho — Have you had problems in your backyard garden this year? You’re not alone.

Gardeners across the Treasure Valley are voicing frustrations this summer after seeing impacts of the intense July heat, problematic pests, and plant viruses. After an amazing start to the season with a wet and cool June leading to lush spring crops like lettuce and cabbage, July came in with a vengeance.

Juli Bokenkamp at the Meridian Co-Op Garden has been documenting their struggles on social media after having to reluctantly rip out more than 80 tomato plants hit with yellow leaf curl virus.

"This gardening effort is not easy," Bokenkamp said. "It’s just disappointing to see half of the garden down."

Bokenkamp grew close to 100 of those plants personally from seed. They started the summer with nine rows of tomatoes, 20 different varieties, and about 160 tomato plants total. Only about half are still standing.

"It’s devastating, you know, and frustrating at the same time," Bokenkamp said. "We’re unsure if we’ll even have a tomato crop this year. We’re unsure if we’ll be able to share tomatoes with the Foodbank and that makes me really, very, very sad."

The co-op gardeners aren't alone. Horticulturist Susan Bell with the U of I Extension office in Ada County works closely with the Master Gardeners program, hearing from gardeners all across the region.

"Once a plant gets a virus, there's nothing you can do to control it," Bell said. "You pretty much pull it out of the ground and throw it away."

Bell says weather plays a major player in our region with intense heat and dry conditions leading to a majority of plant problems.

"Especially plants that are supposed to produce fruit, they will abort their flowers," Bell said. "So you might see in your vegetable garden that you’re not seeing any tomatoes being formed or melons being formed because it’s gotten too hot. A lot of times when temperatures get above the nineties, plants just kind of stop."

Gardeners have also reported plants that typically appreciate full sun exposure were scorched in the stretch of triple-digit heat.

Squashing those squash bugs

By early August, squash bugs are often the arch nemesis of Treasure Valley gardeners. If you're winning your battle with the pests this year, odds are you've lost in the past.

As if the intense heat wasn’t punishment enough, these pests thrive in hot conditions quickly turning vibrant green squash plants into a withering, yellow, dead disaster.

"Squash bugs are actually always a problem, but when it gets hot out it seems like there are even more of them!" Bell said. "They bring their grandma and grandpa and kids and grandkids and the whole family is out there working on your plants! And the biggest problem with the squash bugs is if they bite on the plant, they actually insert a toxin which causes that plant to wilt."

Unfortunately, it's another problem Co-Op gardeners know all too well.

"You’ll look down a row and say, ‘one of these things does not look like the other!’" Bokenkamp said. "You’ll see a row of green plants, then all of a sudden a yellow plant in the middle of the row. So we know something has happened."

Bokenkamp also saw several other pests this summer for the first time in her ten years on the land. Lygus, vine borers, rollie pollie bugs, and grasshoppers can cause problems, too.

Learning from the lessons

"No two years are the same," Bokenkamp said.

Most would agree gardening comes down to trial and error. With so many factors out of our control, we can only hope to learn from problems that arise and plan ahead for the future.

Bokenkamp and the 33 families who spend countless hours each week tending to their one-acre lot aren’t giving up hope, planting new crops in plots where tomato plants were ripped out.

“I mean who plants tomato plants in July?" Bokenkamp laughed. "It's pretty late.”

But better late than never, and they have high hopes for fall crops.

“You know at this point I have people thinking the garden is almost over," Bokenkamp said. "We’re still planting seeds!"

It's not too late for Fall Crops

Some vegetables thrive in the cooler weather that comes in late summer and early fall.

August is an ideal time to plant crops like carrots, radishes, beets, and peas. Gardeners can also get a second crop of kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and lettuces.

You can view a Treasure Valley Fall planting guide here.

The importance of watering properly

Bell says a vast majority of backyard garden problems can be solved simply by watering properly. For veggies, that means soaking the top twelve inches of soil which more likely than not means watering longer and less frequently.

As for watering trees and landscaping, remember the roots extend far beyond the base of the trunk.

"I think a lot of times, people don't know where root systems are on plants and how extensive root systems are especially for trees," Bell said. "Trees have huge root systems that expand out from themselves so putting a dripper at the base of a trunk isn't going to do much of anything."

Another common mistake Bell sees is gardeners using drip lines like a standard sprinkler, running each zone for a few minutes a day when in reality they need a significantly longer time to saturate the surrounding soil.

Large trees can consume 100-150 gallons of water each day in the summer heat, and if they're not watered adequately, Bell says you may start to see signs of a pest problem.

"A lot of people don't realize that insects hear at a scale that we are not even remotely close to," Bell said. "So if you don't give trees the water that they need, keeping in mind that their roots are two to three times out further than their leaves, those plants go into stress mode. The water vessels inside the plant start breaking, and the insects can hear that and often times are drawn to plants that are under stress."

Checking your soil health

An important part of planning for any garden is preparing the soil.

If you plant your garden in the same area each year, it's important to add compost or fertilizer throughout the year to restore nutrients.

"What happens is the roots are mining the soil for nutrients, so if they're in the same spot year after year after year, they're using the nutrients that are there," Bell said. "We fertilize things two to three times during the season, especially in vegetable gardens, and maybe once at the start of the season for landscape plants."

Then you need to keep in mind what kind of nutrients each plant needs. For example, leafy plants like your grass or lettuces will need more nitrogen, while plants that produce fruit like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, melons, and cucumbers will need more phosphorus.

When you're looking for fertilizer, you'll see three numbers on the label. These three numbers represent the primary nutrients of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).

You can take advantage of services offered at your local U of I Extension office where soil testing is available.

There's also an upcoming Fall Garden class and resources available on a variety of topics here.