Bogash talks of successes on his pepper, tomato farm

AFP Correspondent

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (Feb. 14, 2017) — ISP Technologies advisor Steve Bogash outlined production techniques for tomatoes and peppers at the recent Farming for the Future Conference of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
Bogash, a Penn State horticulture educator before his current position, explained that strong soil fertility and production management are essential to organic systems.
Both tomatoes and peppers are heavy feeders; plus they are subject to serious pests. With  biopesticides for pest management and biologicals for other growth practices, Bogash advised his audience to begin production with strong plants.
Prior to planting, growers should consider the performance and results of the previous year’s crops, test the soil or media, and apply the nutrients. Bogash reminded the group that organic fertilizers tend to be slow release.
With illustrations of abiotic disorders, he said blossom end rot, which can also be on fruit sidewalls. Although often associated with tomatoes, peppers are subject to this problem also. It is due to an imbalance of calcium. He suggested potassium additions at the time of flower initiation.
Blotchy color on the leaves is due to magnesium deficiency. That condition sets up the plant for calcium deficiency.
Radial cracking can be handled by harvesting earlier when rain is expected. “But not at the breaker stage,” Bogash warned. Showing photos of slightly underripe fruit which has almost fully colored, he said at that stage full flavor will develop.
The pH of the soil greatly affects nutrient availability. Noting that a pH of 7 is considered neutral, Bogash said that with media and soils of 6.2 to 6.5 pH, tomatoes and peppers grow best. In liquid culture, the pH is better at 5.8 to 6.2. As a comparison, cucumbers are a bit more tolerant at 6.2 to 6.8 pH. He emphasized that testing must include both the soils and irrigation water.
He mentioned that nine ounces of powdered citric acid in 100 gallons water will reduce pH by one point.
An accurate pH meter is essential for testing. Paper testing will not work. The cost of a meter is $60 to $200, and they last two to three years. “The glass bulb is porous,” he explained. Also, calibration must be performed at every usage. “Don’t self-calibrate,” he warned.
Turning to fertility, Bogash pointed out, “Know your soil and potting media. Regular testing by a laboratory is the only accurate tool.” He advised testing before and again at the onset of flowering. As the plants progress, the key nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium will be used by the plant at different rates.
When preparing the bed, he advised plowing down 30 to 50 percent of the overall fertilizer needs, adding that organic growers may want to plow 60 to 80 percent.
He recommended not fertilizing at seeding. At the first true leaves, use 75 to 100 parts per million balanced nitrogen.
At four to six weeks, nitrogen should be at 100 to 150 ppm. Bogash stressed transplants at that age. ‘Old’ transplants—those with flowers—are past the vegetative stage and will never perform as well, Bogash said.
At eight weeks, he urged testing again. Water also must be tested for pH, and N, P and K. Bogash noted, “It’s important to account for what’s already in the water.”
Be alert for particulates which can clog the irrigation system, especially when using well water. Spring, stream, well and pond water all differ. Surface water requires a sand filter.
Also, spores from the diseases Phytopthora and Pythium can be present in surface waters. 
Ideally, there is a rapid increase in vegetative mass after planting.  During the first flowering, flower bud initiation starts a heavy drop in potassium. In fruit development, phosphorus declines as the fruit sizes.
Flowers and fruit should develop in balance with vine growth. His recommendation for early vegetative growth is 10-20-20 or 28-16-7; or 3-4-3 when using fish-based fertilizer. He urged obtaining a lab-tested tissue analysis. Collect samples in a paper bag. Using an average plant, collect 10 to 15 whole leaves on tomatoes using the most recent mature leaf— about the fourth or fifth leaf from the top. On determinate types, use the leaves below the top flower cluster. On peppers sample 20 to 25 leaves.
Using the tissue analysis, adjust the fertility program at two weeks prior to flowering.   Bring Ca to 100 percent sufficiency, and adjust Mg to Ca with a ratio of 2 to 4 Ca to 1 Mg.
Bogash emphasized the importance of analyzing in terms of sufficiency, deficiency and toxicity.  He defined sufficiency as a moving target that varies from carrying a crop to carrying a profitable crop. It is typically expressed as a percentage.
Deficiency indicates that not enough nutrient is present to satisfy even the most minimal plant needs.
Toxicity means an overabundance to the point of damaging a plant or causing other nutrients to be out of balance.
(Editor’s note: Bogash’s disease control strategies, including biopesticide usage, will appear in a subsequent issue.)