By Rick Dayton

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – In the United States, tomatoes are the most popular plant to put in the garden. Late May is the time to get your plants in the ground. But, before you start to dig this spring, here are some garden secrets that are sure to make you the envy of your neighborhood.

Before we get to those, we look at three wives’ tales Tribune-Review Home and Garden Editor Doug Oster says simply are not true.

Myth number one: Plant marigolds around among your tomato plants to keep the garden pests away.

“There is nothing wrong with growing marigolds, but they’re not really going to help you get rid of pests, whether it is rabbits, or deer, or itty bitty pests,” Oster said.

Oster said that myth comes from one variety of marigolds that can help repel some nematodes under the ground. He said if you like marigolds, go ahead and plant them, but don’t expect them to keep away the pests.

Myth number two: Bury banana peels in the dirt near your rosebushes to keep the aphids away.

Oster said that may sound good in theory, but there is another consideration.

“The fear is that you are going to change the pH and that’s a very important thing. The pH has to be right for the plant because even though you have the nutrients, if the pH is wrong, the plant can’t uptake the nutrients,” he said.

Myth number three: Put a teaspoon of Epsom salts in the dirt before you plant your tomatoes.

“All the old timers love to put in a teaspoon of Epsom salts when they plant their tomatoes and peppers,” Oster said. “Science shows us that is not really available to the plants.”

There are however, a number of garden secrets that Oster guarantees will yield great results.

Secret number one: Harvest in the garden early in the morning.

“It’s going to be the best thing you have ever had. Anything out of the garden in the morning. Today, we are going to harvest lettuce. It’s going to go right in the fridge, and I can’t wait until dinner,” he said.

Oster cuts lettuce with scissors hoping he will get more lettuce from the roots in the next couple weeks.

Secret number two: Pull the bottom leaves off your tomatoes before you plant them. Dig a long trench and plant the tomato horizontally. Cover the root ball and the length of the stalk with a couple inches of dirt. Leave only the top foot of the plant out of the ground.

“The roots are only going to be a couple inches down,” he said.

Don’t worry about the stalk and leaves that are above the ground, even with the dirt.

“We are going to leave that just like that. It is going to come up on its own,” he said.

Horizontal planting has several advantages.

“Those little hairs (on the tomato plant stalk) will become roots, and we are keeping them where they like it where it is warm. We are only going to bury them a couple inches down in a trench,” he said.

The other big advantage is the stalk becomes a much larger root.

“It’s going to be close to water. It’s going to be close to heat, and your tomatoes are going to go crazy,” he said.

There is an important tip for horizontal planting. Stake your tomatoes when you plant. That will keep you from severing the roots later on.

Secret number three: Recycling old newspaper guarantees a weed-free garden.

“The best weed barrier you can have is newspaper,” he said.

But he joked and said only use the newspaper in the garden, “After you read my column.”

Here’s what you need to do. Lay six or eight sheets of newspaper right on top of your prepared soil. Oster said the paper must go on top of quality soil in order for your plants to thrive.

“You are putting some compost down first, then your newspaper, then some mulch,” he said.

It takes a little bit of effort, but in Oster’s eyes, it is well worth it.

“I love doing it because when I look at it, I know in July there’s not going to be any weeds there. That’s a good feeling for any gardener,” Oster said.

As you lay the paper out, fully soak it with a hose, then cover the wet paper with mulch like straw. The water and the straw will keep the newsprint from blowing away. To plant, simply punch a hole in the newspaper with your garden shovel, insert the plant in the hole through the newspaper and water it.

The newspaper will do several things for your garden. The thickness of the paper guarantees any weeds in the dirt will not get any sunlight and can’t grow. Even those that already started in the soil won’t live long because they won’t be able to push through the paper.

Don’t worry about leaving the newspaper in your beds. After one growing season, it will break down and become mulch for future plantings.

Secret number four: Oster said start utilizing succession planting.

“I know a lot of people would love just to plant everything on the same day, but, you are going to be much more successful of a gardener if you mix it up a little bit and spread your times out.” Oster said. “Planting a number of times during the season offers protection from a late cold snap or disease. All the tomatoes, all the cucumbers, whatever the plants might be — all the plants are going to be effective. If I mix it up, plant some cucumbers on May 30 and June 15, I am off the cycle of maybe the pest or the disease.”

It also means your vegetable plants will produce for more of the season — and the harvest won’t all come at once. Depending when you plant, you could be picking fresh vegetables from your garden for months while everyone else picks in just a matter of a few days.