Eager Vegetable Growers Wonder No More

March 2023 has been so different than what we were expecting in the horticulture world. Nursery owners and growers were ready for another dry spring, so we were all in a big hurry to fill the shelves with plants before the soil totally dried out and the heat of summer hit. Well, there’s no second guessing Mother Nature, so as I look at the calendar and see that spring is ‘officially’ beginning the joke is on me.

When I first decided to start growing vegetable starts many years ago my dad and the farmer/neighbor Mr. Gus sat in my kitchen and warned me to never even think about selling tomatoes until after April 1st, or risk late freeze or cold wet weather that would stunt growth. My dad would remind me that we got a killing freeze in May of 1964 that killed his tomato plants. He loved tomatoes so he never forgot that spring! And for many years I stood my ground about when I would sell tomato starts but over the last few years we have been bringing tomatoes out earlier and earlier for sale, and this year it was one month earlier than normal. After all, the last couple of years have been fine…

All of you eager vegetable growers are wondering what to do about planting this year? You are all used to being out in your garden in shorts and tee shirts by now! Well, April is actually a fine time for planting, and for vegetables such as cucumbers, squash, corn, melons, eggplant and peppers, April, and even May, is a preferable time to assure healthy plants and good yields. But so many gardeners like to get an early start on tomatoes, which are the number one crop in the home garden. So what can you do to feel like you are at least moving towards that first delicious garden ripe tomato?

Tomato plants are warm-weather annuals that are susceptible to problems with low night temperatures in early spring. Appropriate covers can lengthen the plants' growing season, as well as prevent damage due to cold wind and freezing temperatures. Wet conditions can cause problems both with physical stunting of the plant as well as with fungal diseases and with the loss of fertility. So how do you keep your tomato seedlings healthy in cool, wet weather?

If you can keep plants in containers until temperatures are warmer, transplant into 1 gallon pots (or a bit larger), clipping off the side branches and burying the plants up to their ‘necks’, keeping just the top several inches above ground. This will help develop the root system and protect the plant. The pot can be kept outdoors during the day and brought into a garage, coldframe, or even covered with a plastic bucket or garbage can at night. Be sure to maintain good moisture in the pot – dry roots are more affected by cold than a well hydrated plant. Use a good potting soil and fertilizer so you will have a lovely, healthy plant to transplant into the garden in April.

If you have a raised bed to plant into, you can plant tomato plants directly into prepared beds now. Be sure to amend the beds with a good draining soil mix. With a raised bed there are several possibilities to keep new plantings warm. You can purchase garden cloches for small plants, or use buckets turned over, over even ½ gallon milk containers with the tops cut off placed on top of tomatoes during the night. It is also easy with raised beds to fashion metal hoops that can be secured to the wood on each side to form a tunnel, with clear plastic or spun polyester row cover placed over the top for warmth. Just remember, with plastic coverings it will warm up quickly underneath and even cause problems with fungal growth. During warm days you will need to roll plastic back to allow for air circulation. If you aren’t available during the daytime to do this, then spun polyester, or ‘reemay’, is a good choice since it breathes and can be left in place.

Planting directly in the ground right now is tricky, partly because you will need to work the ground very carefully so as not to compact the waterlogged soil. Also, the cool soil temperatures are not conducive to good root growth for tomatoes. Raised beds and pots can warm up more quickly, but the temperature of the soil in the ground will be the last to warm, so don’t expect any growth to occur until temperatures warm. One interesting home made ‘heat blanket’ uses a tomato cage with bubble wrap secured to the outside and over the top, and placed over the top of the tomato plant. This helps to keep the tomato well insulated and dry, but on sunny days will need to be removed or the plant will become over heated quickly. Mulch around the plants to avoid splashing onto the plants – this helps to prevent soil borne fungal spores from reaching the tomato leaves. You can use a compost or straw, or plastic so long as you will be able to irrigate correctly.

Tomato plants are resilient, which is fortunate for all of us tomato lovers! On this cold March night I may be eating tomato soup, but I am dreaming of Caprese Salad!