Compost Disease Control Organic Gardening Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Blossom End Rot and All Other Garden Problems – Are you Missing the Big Picture?

After reading the post I just put up on Blossom End Rot (BER), a new reader is still puzzled about why she has it.

Here’s her situation:
She is a second year gardener.
Her first year of gardening she laid bales of straw down on top of sod and planted her tomatoes into the straw. The tomatoes had BER.

The second year (this year) she laid the decomposing straw on top of the ground to form rows.
Somewhere along the line she had added some leaves.

Then she dug holes with a post hole digger into red clay, 12 inches or more, and then put in all the following amendments:
Egg shells, shrimp shells, chickety doo doo, organic tomato fertilizer, vegetable garden fertilizer, and bone meal.

She planted the seedlings two feet apart and pruned to one main vine.

Gary Ibsen, founder of Tomato Fest and known as the Tomato Man, who has been growing tomatoes for 40 years said heavily pruned tomato plants appear to be more susceptible to blossom end rot.

When she still had BER she “ran to the nursery expert and based on that conversation gave each plant a drink of lime.”

Her indeterminate tomatoes still got BER.  Determinate tomatoes did not. (Determinates are tomatoes that bear a set number of fruit rather than bearing until frost like indeterminates.)

She wants to do what she needs to do this fall to get better results in 2015. She wanted to know if that means planting winter rye, adding her compost in the spring, and maintaining a thick layer of mulch throughout the growing season.

Certainly all of this is good. But will it end her BER?

My best guess is that it won’t. Not next year anyway.

Looking at the Big Picture

The obvious problem that I see is lack of soil preparation and soil improvement.

As I have said in many previous posts and in my book, soil preparation and improvement are the first steps in creating the most productive and healthiest garden possible. Those two things are what will help almost any problem you have with disease and pests. And over time the results will be cumulative.

Deep Soil Preparation

Loosening the soil deeply allows plants to grow bigger since they will have more room for roots. They can go deeper to get the nutrients and water they need.

If you’re unable to dig to accomplish the initial preparation, which gives you a head start, then nature can do it for you. BUT, it will take longer. You can use cover crops over a period of years that send down deep roots to loosen soil. The biomass of the cover crop can be laid back on the bed to decay and recycle the minerals it has mined from the soil. (I have a bed right now, started last year, that nature is preparing for me. It’ll be two more years before it’s ready.)

If you allow soil to remain compacted, it can cut down on production by as much as 50%.

Caution: Do your homework on cover crops before you use them. Know what to expect before you plant.

Adding Organic Materials

Adding lots of organic materials (such as leaves, crop residue, dried grass clippings, twigs, manure free of residual herbicide) is what improves the physical condition of the soil, also known as tilth. Compost is fine to add, but there is something about adding raw organic materials and allowing them to decay in the soil that makes the soil better. Once decayed these raw materials become organic matter in your soil.

With sufficient levels of organic matter, the soil’s appearance and structure will change. It’ll start to drain properly and at the same time will hold more water for when the crops need them. Soil life will increase. It’s microbes (soil life) that transfer the nutrients (feeds them) to your plants.

I transplanted lettuce yesterday in this bed that was prepared 15 years ago. Now I just pull back the straw and plant. Of course, I continue to add organic material on top or as cover crops each year.

I transplanted lettuce yesterday (Sept. 12th) in this bed that was prepared 15 years ago. Now I just pull back the straw and plant. Of course, I continue to add organic material on top or as cover crops each year.

Popular “Quick Fixes” Are NOT Soil Improvement

Adding things like egg shells, shrimp shells, chickety doo doo, organic tomato fertilizer, vegetable garden fertilizer, and bone meal is not really soil improvement. (Although you can certainly add your egg shells and shrimp shells as part of your organic material. Just keep in mind they can draw undesirable critters to your garden.)

Thinking that these things will “fix” your garden problems is a concept that comes originally from the chemical companies via their marketing to sell their chemicals. Human nature has always been on their side. At one time or the other we all fall for the hype and the make-believe until we learn otherwise.

“Organic” is popular and becoming more so all the time. It’s easy to exchange the mind set of a “quick fix” chemical to what we think might be a “quick-fix” that’s acceptable for organic gardens.

The No-Effort or No-Work Way

There are many fast no-work ways to get a plant to grow and produce fruit. You can find them all over the internet and in books and magazines. You may have chosen one of these ways.  Perhaps it suits your purpose.

Want to Work with Nature for More Success?

If you have chosen to partner with nature and garden organically, then good soil is the basis of your food production and your success. Without it, your crops will struggle.

As long as you continue to focus on the “quick-fixes” with actions that do not improve and replenish the soil you get more poor soil, poor crops, disease, pests, etc.

When you focus on the big picture of  improving and replenishing  your garden soil (adding organic materials), it gets better. And so do your crops.

Final Comments

If you want success for the long haul, deep soil preparation (whether by you or nature) and improving the soil is the way to go. How long it will take, depends on how good or bad your starting conditions are.

Your return on investment will be crops with higher yields, fewer disease and pest problems, and drought resistance.

Sept. 12 ,2014 transplanting lettuce seedlings into a bed.

Sept. 12 ,2014 – I’m transplanting lettuce seedlings into part of a bed that is available.


Related Posts:

Soil Improvement – Your Foundation for Success

Soil Preparation – 1st Key to Soil Improvement

contd’ Soil Preparation – 1st Key to Soil Improvement

Adding Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement

contd – Adding Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement

Last Part – Adding Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement

What to Do If You Can’t Dig


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  • Dear New Reader,
    If you want more tomatoes than you can handle, do what Theresa advises. She took my tomato problems on board a few years ago (you can read all about it if you look at the tomato posts on TMG – it’s all there) and for the past two years I have not had to buy tomatoes or tomato sauce to feed a family of five. I have plenty to give away to people who appreciate them too. If reading my story doesn’t convince people – then nothing will. Right now I have a kitchen full of tomatoes waiting to make more sauce, a freezer full of roasted tomato sauce, and plenty more to come. Theresa knows what she is talking about and listening to her advice will make all the difference in the world.

  • I am getting more and more gophers, moles, and voles in my beds. Especially the ones I have added wood under. They have eaten half of my beautiful snap beans and then they chew the main vine in half. I am starting to see why big Ag plowes fields bare and then plants into it. It seems the way I am doing it attracts more wild life.
    I am going to keep working at irradicating most of these creatures, but it certainly makes me second guess the way I am doing things because I have lost such a large percentage of my produce to furry creatures. I am thinking all of the covering is only attracting these voracious eaters. I know it is the healthiest for the soil, and I definitely want to stay beyond organic with my produce. It sure does get frustrating. I sure do feel as tho I am doing something (or many things wrong)

  • Toni, I hear and feel your pain.
    We have moles and voles and shrews up the kazoo! I have minimal damage in a garden that I’m sure appears to be a jungle to creatures. I trap intensively twice a year and then trap again if I see problems.

    I hope you read that part in my book where I told about having a friend who gardens in plowed dirt free from any mulch or any organic matter. (Conventional all the way.) He has much more damage to his crops than I do. I have an acceptable loss, maybe 10% (bad years maybe 20%) and he had 75% loss on some things! So it doesn’t have to be the mulch etc. that causes the problems.

    He also has coyotes that come and eat all his melons. He has ordered traps to care of that problem.

    I don’t have gophers. I am very grateful.

    We do have groundhogs – which are like big gophers I guess. We have managed to keep them at bay, but the situation really got bad at one time and we had to trap and kill them.

    If I were to see that adding wood to beds causes more problems, I think I would not add wood anymore.

    I know it’s frustrating. Dealing with creatures eating the food you raise is very upsetting.

    I don’t know what you’re able to do, but I would seriously considering trapping and shooting to get the numbers down. It will be an ongoing battle.

    Wish I could be of more help to you.
    Vent when you need to.

  • Ok Theresa, I am back down to a manageable frustration level now. Thank you for your amazing patience. I did loose 75% of my potato crop but my tomatoes are beautiful and delicious thanks to you and your wonderful, useful direction.

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