Plan now for great tomatoes later

By Tom Seymour | May 15, 2014
Photo by: Tom Seymour These tomato seedlings have outgrown their container and need to be transferred to a larger container.

It’s mid-May and temperatures are finally hovering somewhere around the average for this time of year. Now, at last, we can get outdoors, work in the ground, prepare our garden beds. And thus we face a danger.

Just because the air has gotten a bit warmer doesn’t mean the ground has warmed proportionately. It takes a prolonged stretch of warm, 60-plus degree weather, for the soil to warm to the point where we can safely transplant tender seedlings.

Also, the threat of frost remains and will remain up through the Memorial Day weekend. Generations of gardeners have used Memorial Day as the line of demarcation between too cold to plant and safe to plant. Even so, Midcoast Maine has seen killing frosts well into June, although this is an unusual occurrence.

Here’s another thing. The date we now use to observe Memorial Day is not the traditional date. Today, we celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May, in accordance with the National Holiday Act of 1971. This was enacted to create a three-day weekend to add to the list of federal holidays. However, up until 1971, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. That means that this year, Memorial Day falls four days ahead of the true date. We have arbitrarily moved the supposed last frost date ahead, a dangerous move for gardeners.

More so, all too many people slavishly follow the Memorial Day date and get all their gardens in the ground despite cold, wet soil. “It’s Memorial Day, so it’s safe to plant,” they say. But setting out such tender selections as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers before the soil has properly warmed can, at the least, set the plants back. Better to leave seedlings in the greenhouse or cold frame until conditions improve.

Tomato prep

Do you buy tomato plants from the local greenhouse or other outlet? Then it’s best to wait until close to planting time to pick them up. Why? Because greenhouses have a controlled climate and the ambient light is far better than anything we can provide at home. Better to let the plants keep on growing in the greenhouse rather than taking them home to become tall and leggy by sitting in front of a window.

This advice is doubly true for peppers of any kind. Peppers are even less able to handle cold weather than tomatoes. So make sure your local grower has the type of peppers you want and then wait to buy them. If you are worried that the place may run out of peppers, just ask to be on a list. That’s what I do. My local greenhouse folks are happy to set aside a container of my favorite peppers. That way, the peppers (or tomatoes) can continue to grow and thrive in the perfect environment of a heated greenhouse. I won’t pick them up until it’s time to set them outside, after the soil has warmed nicely.

Back to tomatoes. For those who grow their own tomatoes from seed, as I do, the need to transplant, or re-pot occurs with relative frequency. And every time tomatoes get moved to a larger, more accommodating vessel, they get planted deeper and deeper. In other words, take the plant from its current pot and put it in a larger pot, being sure to heap the potting soil higher than in the smaller pot. The stem will quickly develop roots and this will help it to become thicker and hardier. This helps the plants from becoming thin and spindly.

My tomatoes have been spending their days and nights outside in my unheated greenhouse and they are doing well. But I keep a sharp watch on the daily weather forecast. If there is the slightest chance that temperatures might drop to freezing or below, I take them inside for the night.

Keeping the tomatoes out in the greenhouse, even on cloudy and rainy days, helps them to harden off, so that they will be better able to cope with conditions when they finally do go into the soil. Besides that, sunlight in the greenhouse affords better growing conditions than that supplied by the grow-light inside my house.

Saving pots

Of course all this transplanting means that you will need a number of plant pots in various sizes. It makes sense, then, to save pots from year-to-year. Plastic plant pots are very durable and will last for many years if properly cared for. Leaving the pots outside in the sun is not proper care, either. The sun’s ultraviolet rays cause the plastic to outgas, which makes the pots very brittle and likely to crack and even shatter. Store plastic pots in a dark place, out of the sun.

Many of my plant pots are more than 20 years old and they remain perfectly functional. As long as they are washed out thoroughly before reusing, they will be fine. It pays to use a mild bleach-and-water solution so as to kill any bacteria or plant-borne diseases that may linger in the old, dirty pots.

But even if you don’t have many pots on hand, don’t feel bad about shelling out the money for more pots, because in a large way, it is a one-time purchase. You might liken this to canning jars. I even have some of my grandmother’s Mason jars left. As long as they are carefully handled and stored, they last for many, many years. The same goes for plant pots.

Some may be tempted to save the plastic containers that food and other products come in for use as plant pots. This isn’t always a good idea, since the type of plastic used may not be as thick and long-lasting as that used in commercially-made plant pots. Also, all plant pots need drainage holes on the bottom. Cutting holes by hand is not only dangerous (one slip can cause a serious cut), it’s difficult. Half the time, the container winds up getting sliced to pieces.

In the end, it’s probably better to bite the bullet and stock up on plant pots. Of course if you are like me, you always save the pots that new plants come in. Last year I put in a new perennial flower bed and in the end, had a good number of pots to add to my ever-growing collection.

Tomato tips

So given that you have enough plant pots on hand, don’t hesitate to transplant those tomato seedlings. Once in new pots, tomatoes respond quickly. It amazes me just how fast tomatoes grow once moved to a larger receptacle. The same plant that appeared to languish in a too-small pot immediately acquires a new lease on life and grows rapidly. I can remember wondering just how large a tomato seedling might have gotten if only I had transplanted it sooner.

It being mid-May, the time draws near when we can set our tomatoes out in the garden. But as pointed out earlier, the soil needs to be warm and danger of frost must be past. So how do we tell when the soil is warm enough? Do we need to insert a thermometer in the ground at different places throughout the garden in order to measure soil temperature? No. There’s no need for that. The old –timers knew their soil was warm enough when they could walk in it barefoot and feel the warmth on the soles of their feet. Today we might just use our hands, although the barefoot method really is the most reliable indicator.

Determining the last frost date is easily done by consulting the calendar for phases of the moon. With the passing of the last full moon in May, chances for frost diminish greatly.

So when finally setting those tomatoes out, the same admonition regarding soil height applies. Don’t just dig a little hole and drop the plant’s root ball into it and surround with soil. That makes for a weak plant. Instead, dig a relatively deep hole and make sure the soil reaches to the first set of leaves. The buried part of stem will quickly set out adventitious roots, making for an extremely rugged and healthy root system.

Finally, if your seedlings have become a bit tall and leggy, no need to worry. Just dig a trench rather than a hole. Set the plant flat in the trench and while holding the top section of plant up straight, bury the lower section of stem with soil.

Now, having given your tomato seedlings the proper care, you stand at the beginning of an exciting tomato-growing season. Your plants will be hearty and rugged, ready to put their energy into fruit. Get those canning jars ready, because you’ll need them to put up all those fresh, home-canned tomatoes. Later in the season, I’ll outline some novel ways I use all those not-quite-ripe tomatoes, the ones I pick just before the first frost. But for now, it’s okay to sit back and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Your tomatoes are winners.

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