The race is on! Local nurseries and garden centers began stocking tomato transplants the first week of March, and eager gardeners were buying them then even though the weather was cold and rainy. It’s usually recommended to postpone transplanting tomatoes until nighttime temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees, but that recommendation often falls on many deaf ears. Here are a few tips for keeping your tomatoes warm and growing until optimal weather conditions arrive.
Don’t let your transplants shiver in the cold too long or they’ll become stunted and grow more slowly even when temperatures warm. Take them home inside a warm car, place the transplants in a sunny spot out of the wind and cover them with clear plastic bags. Move the pots to a heat-retaining south or west-facing wall at night if possible. With luck the soil will still be moist from the early March rain. Keep soil evenly moist if possible by watering well when the soil surface is dry.
Add a small bucket of compost or humus to the native or amended soil for each planting hole, drop an empty cracked eggshell or two or add a couple of tablespoons of bone meal or bulb food to the bottom of the hole to provide extra calcium that tomatoes need to prevent blossom end rot later in the season.
Pick a spot in the garden that will get at least six hours of sun in early spring. Dig a hole deep enough so that the bottom portion or several inches of the stem can be planted into the soil. The bottom part of tomato stems can develop roots that will draw up more water and nutrients. Look for a purplish color at the bottom and plant to that level or to the top of the lowest leaf node.
One drip emitter will not provide enough water for a full-size tomato plant. Each plant will need the water from at least two emitters during the hot months. Emitters that deliver water in an umbrella shape are ideal for wetting most of the soil underneath thirsty tomatoes. Feed your tomatoes two weeks after planting with a low number granular food, say a 4-6-2 formulation.
There are many heat covers available on the market. If you know that you’ll be setting out your tomato transplants early every year when the weather can be variable, you might want to invest in durable materials such as plastic “water wall” covers, bell cloches, row covers or perforated plastic sleeve materials that are slipped over cages and tied at the top. I’ll be planting a few of whatever tomatoes are left at the nursery this weekend into large pots set on rolling saucers so that the pots can be moved into sunny spots in spring and into afternoon shade in summer.
Of course the goal of being the first gardener in the neighborhood to plant tomatoes in spring is to be the first to harvest tomatoes in a couple of months. Check labels for “date to maturity” of 65-70 days or less such as the always reliable “Early Girl” and “Yellow Flame,” a small French variety with good flavor. Many cherry and grape tomatoes also set earlier than some others.
Elinor Teague: firstname.lastname@example.org