An aficionado spreads gospel of the garden

NEIGHBORS

Clarksville man lovingly nurtures the tomato

June 20, 2008|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to the Sun

The scent of a tomato plant is heady stuff to Bob Nixon.

"Some guys love Old Spice, but the fragrance of tomato leaves is pretty special, too - if you already have a wife," the Clarksville resident said.

A tomato aficionado for decades, Nixon, 68, has packaged his advice along with that of 25 other Howard County master gardeners into a PowerPoint program and handout titled "How to Grow Great Tomatoes."

He has talked about gardening to many groups in recent years, but he has given his new presentation only once, to a Rotary Club in Prince George's County. But he deemed it a success.

"No one threw a tomato at me," the retired attorney said.

Each season in the garden brings new challenges and lessons, and this year has been no different, Nixon said. Lifting up a healthy green leaf on a recent day, he pointed out several brown splotches, where rain splattered mud onto his young tomato plants. Nixon plans to hand-rinse the lower foliage of all 20 plants.

"One of the basic rules of growing tomatoes is to separate the plant from the soil," Nixon said.

As counterintuitive as that advice may seem to a novice, there's sound science behind it: Various fungus diseases are ever-present in the soil, waiting to attack, he said.

As an experiment in prevention, Nixon plans to gradually remove the lower foot or so of leaves as the plants grow.

"Even then, if I see a leaf suddenly shrivel and begin turning brown, I'll just cut it off and remove it from the garden," he said.

Nixon also extols the virtue of mulching, which creates a barrier between the lower leaves and the soil, and keeps weed growth down. Straw is his material of choice.

Also, he employs a drip-irrigation system - 4-gallon buckets with five quarter-inch holes drilled in the bottoms - as another way to give the plants water in droughty August without splashing problems onto the leaves.

And he alternates between two patches on his 3-acre property to avoid depleting the nutrients in the soil each year.

These tips and several others are part of his presentation, which he hopes to deliver to garden clubs, libraries and others. The county's master gardener program, which has 140 members, is managed by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

"Bob has been a very dedicated volunteer since completing training two years ago," said Georgia Eacker, program coordinator at the county extension office on Ellicott Mills Drive in Ellicott City. "The idea to develop the tomato talk was all his."

Nixon began accumulating his knowledge of tomatoes 60 years ago, growing up in Salem County, N.J. His grandfather maintained 10 acres of plants, selling tomatoes by the ton to the ketchup manufacturing giant H.J. Heinz. The factory on the Delaware River closed in 1977.

Nixon spent a couple of summers during high school earning 10 cents for every two-thirds bushel basket of tomatoes picked, "decent pay" for a teenager in the mid-1950s, he said.

Rising just after dawn, he would fill 40 to 50 baskets and earn about $5 by late morning, he said. Eventually, farmers stopped using stoop laborers, though, turning instead to picking machines.

Given that New Jersey's nickname is "The Garden State" and the official vegetable is the tomato, growing produce in a Victory Garden to supplement food rationing during World War II was especially appropriate, Nixon recalled.

"Tomatoes are to New Jersey what crabs are to Maryland," said Nixon, who left his home state in 1957 to attend Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, where he met his wife, Ellen. He earned a master's degree in journalism from Boston College in 1964, and later graduated from Washington College of Law at American University in Washington in 1975.

Except for his three years in Massachusetts, Nixon has maintained a tomato patch all of his adult life. He and his wife, a retired accountant and quilter, lived in Montgomery County for 25 years before moving to their home in Clarksville in 1996.

Now that most planting has been completed for this season, the focus should be on keeping plants upright with stakes or cages, Nixon said. He recommends using pantyhose cut into strips as support ties because the nylon is elastic and won't cut into the plant.

He also emphasized that gardeners should regularly remove any diseased fruit or leaves. When the season ends in August, the plants should be removed from the garden. Allowing them to rot in place can result in pathogens in the soil when planting time comes around again in May.

Nixon's interest in gardening extends beyond growing 12 varieties of tomatoes to planting many other vegetables, several types of berries and a few kinds of herbs. He also plants zinnias annually and maintains many perennial flowers.

Lovers of all aspects of nature, the Nixons will host a program this month that is based on the manual The Woods in Your Backyard. Co-author Jonathan Kays, a regional extension specialist at the Western Maryland office, will lead the discussion of best practices and a tour of the Nixons' property.

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