Clayton Garner Jr. has grown tomatoes for more than 20 years. For much of that time, blossom-end rot — a physiological disorder resulting from insufficient calcium — was a fact of life.

But today he has a finely tuned system of watering and fertilization that seems to be keeping the problem at bay and boosting yield as well.

Garner and his father were among the first in North Carolina to try growing crops on plastic to improve quality and manage resources. His goal is to provide his customers with delicious, red, ready-to-eat tomatoes.

To achieve it, he is always trying new varieties, fertility regimes, cultural practices, marketing and outreach strategies. He carefully selects the ones that work and makes them part of his routine. Even so, blossom-end rot persistently remained a problem.

“I was probably losing 10 percent of my crop each year,” Garner said. “I was looking for a solution.”

Dianne Farrer, a regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, responded to Garner’s call. She visited his farm, and they talked about the problem.

“Blossom-end rot is basically a calcium deficiency, but its dynamics are somewhat complex,” Farrer said. “Even if sufficient lime has been applied and calcium is present in the soil, blossom-end rot can still occur, particularly in times of drought. A good watering regime is essential for plants to be able to take up the calcium they need.”

“Soil pH was something I had questions about,” Garner said. “My soil report said I didn’t need lime even though the pH was about 5.5 and my plants seemed to need calcium. To me, that didn’t make sense.”

As they discussed the issue, Farrer continued to emphasize the importance of steady water availability and appropriate fertilization in preventing blossom-end rot.

 “Watering needs to be regulated and precise,” Farrer said. “Nutrients like nitrogen and potash should be applied in the correct amount and in a suitable form. They have an effect on calcium uptake.”