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Sunday, January 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gardening: Still waiting for ripe tomatoes? It’s the weather, not you

Tomatoes are struggling to ripen this year thanks to the weather. (Kimberly Lusk / The Spokesman-Review)
Tomatoes are struggling to ripen this year thanks to the weather. (Kimberly Lusk / The Spokesman-Review)

To everyone out there who has been struggling to get a ripe tomato this summer, you aren’t alone and it’s not your fault. I was down at the Washington State University Organic Farm last week for its annual field day, and they had just picked their first ripe ones – from the hoop house. It’s the weather, folks, not your gardening technique.

I checked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration Climate Prediction Center’s long-range forecast for August through October, and it says we should be getting average temperatures but a slight possibility of below-average precipitation. The El Nino that gave us last winter’s warm weather officially ended in June, and the forecasters aren’t ready to predict a La Nina (cold and wet) just yet.

So it’s back to watering and late summer chores.

First, note that Spokane County declared a burn ban Friday until further notice. The only legal forms of fire are fireplaces, chimeneas, barbecues and patio warmers used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The backyard fire pit and its open flame are off limits. Check out the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency for more information, visit www.spokanecleanair.org and click on the “outdoor burning” tab.

Roses should be fertilized in early August for the last time this season so they can begin to harden off for winter. Keep deadheading tea roses to keep them blooming. Once the weather cools a bit next month, they will send out their last flush for the season. Resist deadheading them at that point so the old flower heads can pretend they are making seeds and reduce the plant’s production of more flowers but, more importantly, new growth. The plants will then get the signal that it’s time to prepare for winter.

Garlic should be ready to harvest at this point. Gently dig the heads out of the ground, bunch them together – stems, dirt and all – with string and hang them in a cool, dark, dry space like a garage for a month. This allows the bulbs to develop their papery skins so they will keep. Once dry, trim off the stalks and store in a cool, dry place. Soft-neck garlic will keep until December while hard neck will hold well into the spring.

Onions are ready to harvest when the tops begin falling over. Pull them and cure for a few days lying in the garden. Trim the stalks and store in a cool, dry place. Remember that Walla Walla sweet onions will only keep for a couple of months, so use them quickly. They make killer fried onion rings.

Now is a good time to do a little general garden cleanup in preparation for the flush of growth we will get when it cools in September. Go after any weeds that are going to seed and dump them in the trash. Clean up bare spots and get some mulch on them so the weeds don’t get a start. Untreated grass clipping, medium bark or my favorite shredded pine needles all make good mulches. They also help reduce evaporation of water from the soil.

Pat Munts is co-author, with Susan Mulvihill, of the “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Munts can be reached at pat@inlandnw gardening.com.

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