Bay Area Gardening Q&A: Problems with tomatoes setting fruit

Q. I have an atrium that surrounds one part of my house. I grew a tomato plant there successfully last year. This year, I started a plant there, and it blossomed but would not fruit. I followed all your advice (egg shells, worms castings and bone meal), and I sprayed “Blossom Start” on it, but the blossoms just dry up and fall off. Any suggestions?

Carol Meacham, Danville

A. I’ve never used “blossom start” before, so I’m trusting you followed directions for its use. As it didn’t work, and you’re having issues, it’s time to look at your gardening area as a whole.

The most important thing to consider is whether you’re getting enough sun. Tomatoes, unless you’re growing cherry tomatoes, require 8 hours of sun every day. Even though you had success last year, conditions in your yard might have changed. The most common issue is trees that have grown and are now shading your garden.

You also want to check that the tomatoes are receiving enough water. Tomatoes do best when they are on a consistent watering schedule. If you don’t have drip irrigation and a timer, you might consider installing those.

If the plants are growing nice and leafy, then fertilizer likely is not the problem. If you add more at this point, you could promote more growth, which will take away from fruit production. Nitrogen-heavy fertilizers tell the plants to grow more green leaves, and if they’re doing that, they aren’t directing energy to fruit.

Tomatoes are sort of self-pollinating, aided by the wind. The atrium might be too protected, so make it a practice to run your hands lightly over the plants, which will help with pollinating the flowers.

Despite perfect growing conditions, weather is the one thing we can’t control. When temperatures get higher than 85 degrees during the day or lower than 55 degrees at night, the plant will drop its blooms and focus energy on keeping itself alive. We’ve had a lot of temperature fluctuation, and I suspect that’s the main issue.

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I wouldn’t give up on having a healthy tomato crop. The plant might just need to settle in and grow its root system, and there’s still plenty of summer left.

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Q. We have three large bottle brush plants that the hummingbirds and bees enjoy. Any advantage to pruning them back with current diminished growth to promote more growth, or best leave them alone?

Terry and Diane Sullivan, Los Gatos

A. While some shrubs benefit from severe pruning, the bottlebrush (Callistemon spp.) is not one of them. Pruning too far back can damage the shrub and in some cases kill it.

Blooms grow on new wood, so you never want to cut too deeply into the interior of the bottlebrush. Instead, snip off plant tips to shape the shrub and promote new growth. If your bottlebrush has grown too large or has too much “dead wood” in its interior, it’s best to prune at ground level.

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