Gardening: Get your tomatoes off to a promising start

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

 I celebrated Memorial Day as I usually do, planting my tomatoes in pots on my porch. I’d hoped to change out the potting soil this year (it’s 4 years old), but a wrenched back and a sprained thumb because of a nasty fall made that impossible, so I rejuvenated the used stuff and am doing some preventative maintenance to hopefully ward off any diseases that may be lurking in the soil from past plantings. 

To rejuvenate the soil, I removed about a third of “old” potting mix, replaced it with my favorite compost, OrganiMax  premium compost, which comes laced with beneficial soil microbes and Mycorrhiza, and mixed it in with the remaining soil. Then I planted my tomatoes using Assure Transplant Success, an organic 5-5-5 fertilizer that’s also enhanced with beneficial microbes and Mycorrhiza.     

No-dig gardens can make growing vegetables easier, since there is less weeding.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about using aspirin dissolved in water and sprayed on tomato plants and peppers as a helpful disease preventative.  The weather forecasts for the coming weeks call for heat and high humidity, signals this year may be another disease prone year for tomatoes. So I looked up the recipe I wrote about earlier and I plan use it again this season.  I’ve never had a problem with any disease on the plants I grow in these pots, so I’m confident this works.     

Researchers at the USDA and the University of Florida found the active ingredient in aspirin, salicylic acid, activates and boosts the tomato plant’s immune system by stimulating what’s known as the Systemic Acquired Resistance, often called SAR, against bacterial, fungal and viral diseases.  When sprayed with a mixture of 1 ½ 325 mg aspirins dissolved in 2 gallons of water to which 2 tablespoons of mild dish soap has been added to act as a spreader sticker every 3 weeks, it not only improved the plant’s resistance to disease, it also improved the plant’s growth, increased fruit size and production.

Do remember that more is not better as far as number of applications or aspirins used.  Too much salicylic acid can damage the plants.

When using any foliar spray, remember to apply it in the morning or the evening when the sun is going down, so as not to burn the leaves. And, cover the entire surface of the leaves, including the undersides.  

Another method of protecting tomatoes from soil-borne diseases, including early blight, is to create a soil barrier to prevent spores from splashing on the plants. Begin by pruning the lower leaves of the plant. Then cover the soil surface with four sheets of newsprint, taking care to overlap so the area stays completely covered. Dampening the paper makes it easy to work with.  Mulch the surface of the paper to hold it in place. Bark chips or even small stones work well. 

As the season passes, removing the suckers that sprout between the stem and leaf branch when they are small helps to increase airflow around the plants and prevent shading. This also helps deter disease. Google “how to prune tomatoes’’ and you’ll find all kinds of pictorials that take the mystery out of this job.  

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. E-mail her at , Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at