2015-08-05 / Gardening Tips / Columns

Gardening Tips: August 5, 2015

Dog Days and Tomatoes

We are well into what has been called the “Dog Days” of summer. This expression is usually interpreted as having to do with the fact that it is so hot and uncomfortable outside. I have heard it explained as “the weather this time of year is not fit for a dog”. The real origins of the phrase are not the same, however. The period of time between July 3 and August 11 coincides with the time when the dog star, “Sirius” was highest in the sky, nearest to the Sun during Roman days. In ancient Egypt, around, 3000 B.C. it coincided with the summer solstice, (June 21) which also began their New Year and the beginning of the inundation of the Nile. The “dog” association apparently began here (the star’s hieroglyph was a dog), but the reasons for that designation are not known today.

Much brighter By Roman times the rising of Sirius was a little bit later in the summer and today, it is later yet. Sirius, due to its brightness, was thought to be adding to the heat of the summer because it is so bright at night, at the same time the sun is so hot during the day. As far as stars go, it is indeed pretty bright, about 20 times as bright as our sun. It is also relatively close to us at 8.6 light years away. It is hard to comprehend today how important the viewing of the night sky was to our ancestors. The majority of people on the planet today have no good view of the stars and planets at night because of light pollution. In that regard, I am lucky to live on a dead end, unpaved, back road with no neighbors for at least half-a mile and no lighted roads or villages nearby.

Things are looking up Consequently, I have a fairly good view of the night sky. The nearest serious light pollution for me, is the faint glow from Albany, some 40 miles away. Imagine what the night sky looked like thousands of years ago with no light pollution at all! Of course there were no evening diversions then, such as TV, or any other artificially lighted indoor activities. The only show in town was looking at the night sky and our ancestors made some remarkable observations, even without telescopes! One of my greatest summertime pleasures is sitting outside at night, star and planet gazing. During the upcoming Perseid meteor showers in August, it is not uncommon to spot as many as 50 “shooting stars” over the course of an evening from my deck. Sometimes my Cousin Ken, a pretty serious amateur

astronomer, brings his giant (12 inch mirror) telescope to my house and we get to see some really amazing sights, such as Saturn’s rings and distant nebula. Anyway, along with the dog days and the associated heat at this time of year, we finally get to eat some of the most highly anticipated crops of the season. I think that just about everyone who grows any vegetables at all, grows tomatoes, which are technically a fruit and not a vegetable.

Common crop Even those with no gardens at all will often have a few tomato plants either in the ground, or in containers. Part of the delight in eating a fresh, home grown tomato, is the anticipation we endure before it is truly ripe. It takes about 45 days from a tomato flower opening to produce a ripe fruit, depending on weather. Tomatoes ripen fastest as temperature between 70 and 80. At temperature below 60, or above 90, very little ripening occurs at all. The cool night temperatures we had this past June slowed the ripening process significantly for many anxious gardeners and the 90 degree days we are now experiencing are not helping either! It’s even worse to wait all this time only to lose the plants and fruit to diseases.

Blight spreading I am sorry to report that the dreaded “late blight” disease has been confirmed in Ulster County. Unlike, “early blight” which may defoliate plants prematurely, but usually allows the fruit to develop, “late blight” usually kills the plant before any fruit ripen. Early blight begins with brown spots or brown wedges on the lower leaves. The brown areas are surrounded by a yellow “halo” that eventually expands and causes the entire leaf to shrivel, turn brown and die. It may spread to the fruit but more often they are harvested before that occurs. Late blight produces a grey colored, fuzzy, mold that attacks the leaves and the fruit early on and causes the fruit to rot before it ripens. Neither disease can be cured once infection occurs, but they can be suppressed by applying protectant fungicides before symptoms or even shortly after symptoms occur. Both organic fungicides containing either copper, potassium bicarbonate, rosemary and thyme oil, or Neem oil, as well as chemical fungicides containing chloranthalonil are available over the counter to home gardeners. I realize that most home gardeners would prefer not to use any pesticides in their garden, but in this case, an ounce of prevention may allow for a pound, or lots more pounds, of fresh tomatoes to be enjoyed.

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