MILWAUKEE (AP) -- There's no question that Eric Ciula picked a bad year to get into a competition for growing the biggest tomato. The worst U.S. drought in decades was gripping two-thirds of the nation, and many gardeners were spending hours watering just to keep their plants alive.
But Ciula won his family's 2012 contest with an heirloom tomato that was just shy of 2 pounds. He credits his soil preparation and some experimental growing techniques, but he admits it was largely "dumb luck."
"I didn't know we were going to have a drought, I was just trying something new," Ciula said.
April is a planning month for gardeners throughout the middle of the country, and many are trying to figure out what to do amid rapidly shifting weather conditions. Ciula himself spent a recent rainy day going through his notes, researching tomato and pepper varieties and combing gardening blogs for new ideas.
A cold spring and recent rain helped break the drought in parts of Wisconsin and to the east, but areas west remain dry. More rain than usual is expected this spring, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. But he noted last year's drought sneaked up on everyone, emerging over a couple of weeks in June.
With nothing certain, one expert said there a few things gardeners can do to foster success — regardless of weather conditions.
Mulch works wonders, according to Tim Johnson, director of horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It helps keep moisture in the soil, protects plants from extreme temperature, helps control weeds and, as it breaks down, improves the soil. Johnson said shredded hardwood bark mulch is commonly used for flower gardens where he lives, but for vegetable gardens, he would use leaf mulch or apply compost.
Many gardeners water each day, but Johnson recommends saving time by doing it once a week with a big drink. Perennials, trees and shrubs can be starved of water a bit without permanent damage, but gardeners need to watch for drooping or discolored leaves.
"If you have a perennial garden or a shrub garden, and things are starting to brown up, you probably should water to save them," Johnson said.
Jean Roach, a 71-year-old retiree from Joliet, Ill., took that approach last summer with her perennials. She gave extra water to a few new plants she was trying to get established, but unless the older ones started wilting, she left them alone.
"They survived," she said, noting that her Lenten roses have already bloomed. "Thank God. Perennials are just so hardy."
Vegetable gardens, however, are another story. Johnson said those need more water and on a regular basis. To help, till in compost to add nutrients and break up the soil so roots can more easily push down to moisture below the surface.
Ciula, a 40-year-old civil engineer, said he put peat moss into his 12-by-22-foot garden in Cottage Grove, Wis., and then layered mulch and straw on top to help hold in moisture. He let his tomatoes — the focus of the family competition — get 6 or 7 feet tall, but only caged them to 4 feet. The tops flowed over and created a canopy that he believes also helped hold in moisture.
Despite the drought and an abnormal number of days over 90 degrees, Ciula got 100 pounds of tomatoes from seven plants. He said he's not sure he would try the canopy in a wetter year, but he plans to stick with the layering, as it helped reduce weeds.
Alison Hess, a 35-year-old graphic designer from Columbus, Ohio, largely gave up last year. A number of her tomato plants didn't blossom, and then an animal began eating the fruit that did grow.
The one bit of success she did have was laying four tomato plants out in a Japanese ring. She shaped a trellis into a square, placed burlap inside and then filled it with compost. Then, she planted the tomato plants around the outside of the trellis. She would pour water into the middle of the trellis, allowing it to flow through the compost before spreading out to the plants.
"I think the idea is that the plants are getting a constant drip of nutrition," Hess said, adding, "It worked, and I got a lot of tomatoes off of those four plants."
She plans to do the same thing again this year.
The best water, however, is always stormwater. Rain cools down the atmosphere, washes dust from leaves and helps clear the air of pollutants — three things that foster photosynthesis, said Boyce Tankersley, the director of living plant documentation at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Tankersley, who monitors the garden's plants and growing conditions, said thunderstorms are even more beneficial because lightning gives off some nitrogen.
"The nitrogen is dissolved in the rain water, and ... you also get a small amount of fertilization," he said.
Chicago Botanic Garden: http://www.chicagobotanic.org/
Alison Hess' gardening blog: http://canningcrafts.blogspot.com/
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