It’s tomato planning — not planting — time

Meet Mike in person
  • Saturday, April 30, at 1:30 p.m. at Greenstreet’s in Lothian, Maryland; and Sunday, May 1 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Greenstreet’s in Old Town Alexandria.
  • Saturday, May 7, at the K&B Hardware “Lawn and Garden Palooza”; 912 Forest Drive in Annapolis. Chemical-free lawn care at 11 a.m. and prizewinning tomato tips at 1 p.m.
Sure is some tempting tomato weather we’re having, eh?

The gods of impetuous planting are tempting us mightily. Highs in the 80s make us stare at our summer-garden-to-be with longing, and nights that haven’t been dipping much below 50 are exactly what I’ve been telling you to wait for to plant for the past 17 years.

But it’s still only April — and people who plant their tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and other summer-lovers now are daring those gods to remind us why it’s called “the cruelest month.”

Right now, my tomatoes are outside — in their pots.

They stay out on sunny days and remain out on nights that stay in the 50s. But, they are ready to come back inside for a day or two should a rogue night drop down into the dreaded 30s.

Go ahead and leave them out; move them into bigger pots, by all means, even give them some compost, worm castings or a dilute organic fertilizer to keep them growing strong.

But don’t plant them quite yet.

Keep outdoor starts well-watered

Yes, the days — and more importantly, the nights — are warm enough for tomato and pepper growing, but it is still April. Go ahead and buy the plants you want and take them — and the plants that you’ve started indoors — outside.

Also feel free to leave them outside, but get another week of weather guessing out of the way before thinking of actually planting them (I smell a night in the low 30s yet to come).

In the meantime, keep them well-watered.

Young plants are typically started in a soil-free mix, which is great for root development, but dries out quickly. You might have to water them daily but do that watering only in the morning, never in the heat of the day and never ever in the evening.

Always water slowly. Give yourself a bit of extra time, so you can give each plant a little water in turn, wait a bit and then water some more — otherwise it’s all going to run out the bottom.

This is also exactly how you should water when they’re big plants growing in the garden. Once they’re in the ground, water deeply but no more than once or twice a week — and that’s only if there’s no rain.

Avoid the biggest mistake in ‘tamata’ growing

This is a great time to plan to avoid the biggest mistake in tomato growing — planting in the same spot every season.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re chemical or organic, raised bed or flat earth — naturally occurring wilts will develop in the root area of your tomatoes and build up over time. They don’t do much, if any, harm to the plants the first two years, but by the third year in the same spot, the lower leaves of your plants will turn yellow and the yellowing will progress up the plant.

Put tomatoes in that same spot again the following year, and the yellowing will show up sooner in the season and move up faster. One more year in the same spot and the plants are typically dead by July.

The solution? Find some new ground for your tomatoes and grow other plants in the former tomato spots for two or three seasons. After two or years without tomato roots in their soil, the wilts will die off and those spot will be safe for tomatoes again.

At least for a year or two.

Six tips for top ‘tamatas’

While you’re waiting for planting time, let’s review:

  • Don’t plant tomatoes in the same spots where tomatoes were grown the previous two years.
  • Tomatoes and other fruiting plants require 6 to 8 hours of sun a day.
  • Tomatoes want that sun to begin hitting them first thing in the morning to dry off their disease prone leaves. (Peppers and eggplants and such don’t care when the sun arrives as long as they get in their hours.)
  • Mulch your tomato plants with two inches of yard waste compost (not composted manure) to further prevent disease.
  • Raised beds are much better than flat earth. (I think Copernicus said that).
  • Place the dried and crushed-up shells of a dozen eggs in each planting hole to prevent blossom end rot — that heartbreaking occurrence when tomatoes turn black and nasty on the bottom just as they’re ripening up. No shells? Feed the plants a calcium-rich organic food labeled for tomatoes.
The secret language of tomato tags

Getting ready to choose this season’s tomatoes? Take a good look at the “days to maturity” listing on the plant tag or catalog description.

The big, flavorful heirlooms and beefsteak types we all crave typically take around 90 days to produce their first ripe fruits — sometimes longer. So don’t expect to be picking any of those giants until mid- to late August. (Yes, that is why your garden was still full of green fruits late last season).

Ah, but a tomato labeled 55 to 60 days should start producing ripe fruits in July; one fairly famous variety is even named Fourth of July and has delivered for me as promised.

Then play both ends and the middle. If you have room for six plants, make them radically different in their DTMs: Plant one that’s labeled for a super-early 55 days, one that’s around 65, one that’s around 75 and so on. Just make sure you also get one or two high numbers — these plants produce fruits that are worth the wait.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up