Q: I thought I recently saw a tour advertised to visit the Heronswood gardens but can't seem to find the information anywhere. Is there a local...

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Q: My tomatoes failed last summer, and I hope to actually produce a few ripe ones this year. I get overwhelmed by all the kinds of tomatoes at the nursery.

A: Last year’s rainy and chill August into September, and this year’s damp and freezing spring (we suffered the coldest April on record), haven’t been conducive to successful tomato growing. Even when you start with great soil and ideal types of tomatoes for our climate, ripening them still depends on a long growing season of warmth and sun.

Be sure and wait until summer arrives before planting tomatoes outside — to grow and prosper, they need temperatures that stay above 50 degrees at night, with soil temperatures at 55 degrees. Many of our daytime temperatures have barely been above 50 degrees! This means you may not be able to set tomatoes out into the garden until early to mid-June, a confusing prospect when nurseries have had them in stock since mid-April.

Purchase short, sturdy, dark-green plants in at least four-inch pots. ‘Oregon Spring,’ ‘Early Girl’ and ‘Fourth of July’ are all varieties that ripen more quickly than most. ‘Sungold’ is a yellow cherry tomato that wins many blind taste testings; ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Sweet Tangerine’ are also popular locally.

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Plant your tomatoes in as warm a location as possible, ideally in a raised bed against a south-facing wall. At a minimum, they need six hours of direct sunlight a day. Mix manure and compost into the soil. Plant tomatoes deeply so that most of the stem and all but the top two layers of leaves are underground to encourage lots of healthy root growth. Stake them well, water thoroughly twice a week and sacrifice something precious to the weather gods in the hope of a nice warm summer.

Q: I thought I recently saw a tour advertised to visit the Heronswood gardens but can’t seem to find the information anywhere. Is there a local group still trying to buy back Heronswood Nursery? Do you know where this situation stands, and are the gardens being cared for?

A: Heronswood in Kingston, formerly the home and nursery of Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones, was purchased by W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in 2000. In 2006, George Ball, president of Burpee, said the decision to close the gardens and move the nursery operations to Pennsylvania was a financial one.

Heronswood will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 26 as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program (for details, see www.gardenconservancy.org).

I checked with Lee Neff, chairwoman of the nonprofit Pacific Northwest Horticultural Conservancy, to see how this group’s efforts to buy back Heronswood are progressing. She says they’re continuing to negotiate with Ball, who has recently had the property appraised. The PNHC still hopes to restore the Heronswood gardens and open it for classes and research. PNHC is conducting a feasibility study on raising the funds needed to purchase and operate the property. Although the Web site is in need of an update (the last “news” is from October 2007), you can learn more, and donate to the cause, at www.pnhc.org.

Former owner Hinkley says he hasn’t seen the property in two years, but he’s sure that Alan Hansen, a longtime Heronswood employee, is maintaining the gardens well. “I don’t know if the PNHC will ultimately be successful in dealing with Ball, yet I know they’re a talented and persistent assortment of individuals who are intent on preserving the garden. If anyone can do it, they will. If they’re able to secure the property at what I consider to be a fair market price, I’ll support their efforts in maintaining the garden, creating an environment of learning and rebuilding the collection of plants,” says Hinkley.

Valerie Easton also writes about Plant Life in Sunday’s Pacific Northwest Magazine. Write to her at P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or e-mail planttalk@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.

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