By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter
Every tomato gardener loves the first days of summer when the weather is warm, soil is moist and the planting conditions are perfect.
I, myself, have to wait until the second week in May before I can get my warm season crops in the ground.
But this year’s unusually warm weather has caused many gardeners to consider breaking with that tradition.
But take heed from a long time gardener, while March may have come in like a lion there is still a lot of weather to get through so do not be fooled or be a fool.
I learned this lesson long ago when I was a beginning gardener and thought I knew everything. I mean, I was in agriculture class in high school and came from a long lineage of farmers, what could go wrong.
Well, that year, everything went wrong. It snowed on Derby Day, which was unheard of in my area. I tried to cover my plants with plastic but the drastic change in temperature caused too much damage. I would have been o.k. if I had not planted them in the ground but instead used a hotbed, which by the way I did not have. Well, as you can image, it was a lesson learned and I had to go out and buy new plants but……..
When life hands you squishy tomato plants, come up with a better plan. So the second time around planting, I looked for some solutions that would allow me to get my tomato crop in sooner and the first one I found was a tomato cozy.
This cozy or wall-o-water, as it is also known as, was so simple it was silly. The structure consists of a two-ply plastic tube that is either clear or red in color. The tube is placed over each tomato plant. Then, the two layers of the plastic are separated and water is poured in between the layers. The sun heats the water during the day and the heat that is stored in the water is released during the night.
The next item I learned about was cloches. These little bell-shaped jars have saved many plants from the unexpected visit from Old Man Frost. But the true glass ones can be very expensive so I used the old plastic bottle standby. While these work fine, they just do not have the same ornate look in the garden.
The last thing I learned about setting plants out too early was that sometimes the easiest and simplest solution is the best and in doing so I would like to say hurray for the printed page. Newspaper, it seems, is a great product to use for frost protection. It breathes, is inexpensive or free and is easy to use. As a matter of fact, it is so easy to use that even the least experienced gardener can use this technique with almost 100 percent success.
Using newspaper for frost protect starts first by knowing when to lie out the paper. Any time the temperature drops below 45 degrees F, it is the time to use newspaper for warm season crops like tomatoes. To begin the process, simply open up the newspaper and place on top of the plants in the evening. Use at least five layers of paper for the most protection without too much weight.
While it is best to remove the paper in the morning, it is not fatal to the plants if you do not get to it. This is approach is different compared to the cloches, which need to be removed or opened up every morning. While this simple layer of paper may not seem to create a layer of protection, it really does, and in most situations is all that is needed for those chilling early season frosts.
So this year, when you get that first tomato of the season gardening itch, consider using one of these techniques to protect your lovely love apples. So until we blog again, this year’s March has roared like a lion but will end like a purring kitten. Do not get caught in its claws by planting your tomatoes early without a plan and protection.