Dear Miss Floribunda,
For several years now I have purchased seeds during the Hyattsville Horticultural Society seed sale in early February and usually I have been satisfied. However, last year the tomato plants I started didn’t perform well. They developed fine indoors and seemed to thrive outdoors, but I got little fruit. The tomatoes that did grow turned black and fell off. Even the possums passed them up. Could something have been wrong with those seeds?
Disgruntled on Decatur Street
The fault wasn’t in the seeds, but in your soil. Although December is the ideal time to get your soil tested, it is not too late to do so. You will find your soil is deficient in calcium, which is the cause of blossom-end rot in tomatoes. While the University of Maryland no longer will test the soil for you, their website (http://extension.umd.edu/hgic/soils/soil-testing) provides the addresses of places where you can send soil samples for testing. Dr. Agronomosky, who used to be on the staff of the soil labs at the University of Maryland, advises against the home testing kits. They are not reliable.
Here are guidelines for taking samples. First of all, don’t take them when the soil is wet enough to make mud pies. Then — using a stainless steel or chrome-plated trowel, probe or spade — dig down as deeply as the roots of the plants you grow in any particular area are likely to reach. (Do not use galvanized tools because they could contaminate the soil with copper or brass.) Draw out as many as eight thin slices of soil from each area that needs testing. For example, you might want to take samples from your lawn; your vegetable garden; certain flower beds; areas where shrubs such as azaleas or boxwood are no longer thriving. Mix each batch in separate clean containers. Remove rocks and turf, and let air dry for a day. Place about a cup of soil from each container in separate plastic bags such as those used for sandwiches. Some labs will provide plastic bags and labels or tags to identify the soil, as well as their protocol for the information you need to provide with each sample. The cost of testing each bag usually ranges from $10 to $20, depending on the lab. If you send soil from different areas of your garden, this will add up, but it only needs to be done every three years and more than pays for itself when you realize how many plants you save when you abide by the recommendations the lab sends you.
Now that you know that the tomato seeds you bought from the country’s oldest and most reputable companies, Hart and Landreth, were not below their usual high standard, let me tell you when you will have the opportunity to buy more. Saturday, February 6, the Hyattsville Horticultural Society will again hold its annual seed and bake sale. This year there will be no fewer than 20 different varieties of tomato seeds, including the Abe Lincoln, a big beefsteak type developed in 1923. Again we will have the magnificent old Russian heirloom variety, Paul Robeson–named by Landreth Company after the russophile African-American actor, singer and activist. Of course seeds for everybody’s favorite Roma, Big Boy and Early Girl tomatoes will be available. There will also be plenty of herb seeds to plant with the tomatoes, including 7 varieties of basil alone. New varieties of peppers will be offered, such as the Caribbean Fish Pepper and Big Jim’s New Mexico hot pepper. Along with vegetable seeds you will find a wide variety of herb and flower seeds for the butterfly garden and a special information table where you can ask questions and get literature concerning butterflies and other beneficial insects. Gardening books and paraphernalia will again be on sale as well as potted primroses to brighten the dark days till spring. I hope you won’t forget to sip hot drinks and lunch on hot soups and baked goods, both savory and sweet.
The sale will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Mary Prangley Room on the second floor of the Hyattsville Municipal Center, 4310 Gallatin Street while HAP (Hyattsville Aging in Place) will be hosting its annual valentine-making workshop that same morning on the ground floor, so you and your family members can enjoy both events. HAP events are open to people of all ages.
If you would like to participate in some of the last-minute planning of our sale please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society at 10 a.m. on Saturday, January 17 at the Municipal Center.