Ask a Master Gardener: March/April 2016

Have a question about your garden?
Submit it at or
You can also call the Pima County Master Gardener Plant Clinic at 520.626.5161.

March 7, 2016

Ask a Master GardenerIssue 17: March/April 2016

What can I do about a swarm of bees in my yard?

A bee swarm in a home’s scupper. A swarm is a large group of bees on the move to search for a new nest after their old hive becomes too crowded. As they look for a new home they make temporary stops to let the queen rest. The cluster will be visible and is often seen in a tree. They are exposed and open and there is no comb or honey visible. At this stage the bees are usually quiet and rarely defensive. Keep pets and people away from the area until the bees move on within one to four days. There is no need to call a pest removal service for a swarm.

Bees seen moving into and out of a cavity or crack in a wall, tree trunk, garbage containers, or roof may have set up a nest or hive within. These established colonies are very protective of the hive. Do not try to address the situation yourself—call a specialist. In all cases you should not disturb the swarm or nest.

Bees are valuable pollinators and there are some bee specialists who provide live, humane bee removal and relocation instead of extermination, thus ensuring that the balance of the environment is kept intact. Search online for bee removal sources.

How can I grow better tomatoes this year?

Tomatoes do well here in Tucson, with a couple of caveats. For best success, gardeners need to be mindful of the proper timing and take care to select the correct varieties. Because of some peculiarities in the way tomato plants set fruit, small varieties or those with short maturation dates do best here. Small varieties include cherry and grape tomatoes, which are available in a variety of colors and sweetness. If you prefer a full-sized tomato, you still need to think small.

This means that large beefsteak types, the ones that are eight or 10 inches in diameter, and which can weigh several pounds, won’t do well here. Avoid anything with “giant” or “whopper” in the species name. Instead look for varieties named Early Girl, Early Doll, Heat Wave, or Alaskan Fancy. These types of tomatoes will typically produce small fruit (4-6 inches, under 8 ounces) but they are tasty and also come in a range of colors and tastes. Hybrids, heirlooms, open-pollinated—they all work, as long as they grow and ripen quickly.

It’s important to focus on the “days to maturity” information on the seed packets. This number indicates how many days on average you can expect between sprouted seed and mature fruit. In Tucson, tomato varieties with maturity length of 65-70 days or less do best. The variety Alaskan Fancy takes only 55 days to reach maturity.

Consider seasonal timing. Tomatoes need to be ready early; starting your own from seeds in January is best. That is because you need to have strong plants, about 4 inches tall, ready to set out in the garden in March. Although tomato plants will grow vigorously and bloom throughout the year, they only set fruit when the nighttime low is between 55 and 70 degrees. In Tucson this usually occurs in April. Until the nighttime temperatures are over 55 degrees, the plants will grow and flower, but not set fruit.

Tomatoes have trouble maturing when the daytime temperatures are above 90 degrees or, for a few varieties, 100 degrees. When it is too hot, the viability of pollen drops. With no pollen, there is no fruit. High heat also damages the stamen so that if pollination does occur, fruit development is poor. Choose varieties with short maturation dates and plant early in the season—aim for planting in the garden in mid-March, just after the last frost. The plants need to be large enough to be ready to set fruit a few weeks later, in April when the nights stay warm. Finally, the fruit needs to ripen before it gets too hot, which is in late May or June.

Planting deeply in very good soil helps the plant develop a bigger root system faster.

The most frequent problems we see with tomatoes are blossom end rot (caused by problems with calcium absorption or irregular watering), root-knot nematodes (best prevented by proper crop rotation practices), and cracking or sunscald. Mulching and protecting plants with 40 percent shade cloth during the hot months will help prevent the latter. ✜

Previous Post

Gardener Q&A: Raising Earthworms

Next Post

Springtime Smorgasbord