Q: I have four tomato plants in large planters with good drainage. They've grown to about 3 feet tall and bloomed wonderfully, but have produced one tomato. The blooms turn brown and fall off. Any ideas?
A: Many tomatoes cease setting fruit when temperatures average about 80 degrees, with night temperatures the main culprit. If you are feeding yours a complete soil food like fish emulsion and, next season, planting as soon as frost danger passes, I think you'd see good production.
Tea party fights unwanted guests
Q: Something is chewing off the upper stems and leaves of my hibiscus plants at waist level. I suspect a deer. I seem to recall a homemade solution to apply to prevent this damage.
A: Sounds like a deer to me. Try spraying your hibiscus plants with a tea made by simmering 1 cup of hot pepper flakes in 1 gallon of water. Let it cool, strain, then add 1 cup of dishwashing detergent other than Dawn. (There's something in Dawn that fries plants; it may be the grease-cutting chemicals.) You can get bulk bags of red pepper flakes at Asian grocers.
Tobacco tea will snuff out stinkbugs
Q: Can I use your recipe for tobacco tea to kill stinkbugs, which are hanging around my royal burgundy beans?
A: My tobacco tea would certainly kill them, but I'd want to really clean the beans with a dilute vinegar solution before cooking and eating them. Diatomaceous earth or rotenone spray from an organic gardening supply house should work too.
Here's the tobacco tea recipe: Drop one pouch of chewing tobacco, such as Red Man, into a wide-mouth gallon jar. Pour in a gallon of hot to boiling water and let it steep a few days. Add 1 cup of dishwashing liquid (not Dawn, see above) as a surfactant. Strain it into plastic quart bottles and freeze. Thaw one as needed.
Spray full strength on tough bugs such as stinkbugs, spiders and lubber grasshoppers. Or cut with an equal amount of water for mites, aphids and baby caterpillars.
If you get the tea on you, rinse well immediately. The nicotine absorbed through the skin will elevate heart rates and blood pressure quickly.
Melons help foil your garden's snails
Q: How do you keep snails at bay other than by drowning them in beer?
A: At dusk, set out cantaloupe shells half-filled with water. In the morning, let them dry out in the sun in a bucket.
Also try laying wooden planks on your mulch at sundown. In the morning lift up the board and hand-pick the snails hiding beneath. Diatomaceous earth sprinkled on them works, but you must repeat this now and then, and diatomaceous earth is expensive unless you buy 50-pound bags by mail.
Up and down are neither here nor there
Q: In your recent column on planting a sweet potato to use its leaves like spinach, you say, "Bury it lengthwise." I'm envisioning that the potato should be planted horizontally, not nose-down. Maybe I'm overthinking this.
A: I wouldn't worry. Sweet potatoes don't know the difference between up and down. If you want extra-plentiful, tender, edible vines, buy the boniato strain from the Hispanic section of a produce market.
John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at email@example.com.