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When is early too early?

So it’s getting to be tomato season. Finally.

Mother Nature starts the season in my Ojai garden...

As the calendar days tick away and we feel the season arrive it gets harder and harder not to run out to the nursery and start the garden in earnest. Right? Sometimes we can ignore that urgency but other times we just can’t resist.

If your season is teasing you a few weeks too early (Gulf Coast ‘Maniacs you know what I’m talking about – freezing temps interrupt spring urges right?) and temperatures seem to be pointing toward the ground where your tomato garden will go, you have a choice to make. You can plant an “early” tomato, sure, but planting a short season variety like Stupice, Siberian or Oregon Spring doesn’t ensure that this plant will do any better than others when temperatures take a dangerous dip.

Parts of the south and southwest are feeling the season advance now. If you live in the Midwest? New England? Don’t even think about it unless you have an industrial-strength greenhouse or very reliable cold frame. And even then you have a while to go. Start your seedlings inside 6-8 weeks before your last predicted frost date.

Where the season is imminent you’d be well advised to use these last frosty days to start thinking about compost and conditioning soils rather than planting. However, if you do jump ahead and put any plants in the ground make sure you’re armed with plastic or cover of some kind. Or grow in containers that you can move when they need protection!

If you’re the kind of tomatomaniac who plants over 50 plants, protecting those babies during the early part of the season can be a real trial. It will test you but you can do it. If you are planting a couple seedlings behind the house just to get your season on that should be pretty easy to protect. Be creative! I have friends who drape plastic over clotheslines or unused swingsets to make terrific temporary greenhouses.

A tomato cage or tower becomes a support for plastic or other cover.

So here’s a story I heard some years ago. A gardener in Sonoma, (Northern California), rumored to grow the greatest tomatoes around, started all his seedlings on Christmas Eve. (The season there truly begins in mid to late April) 6 to 7 weeks later, in early February, he planted those seedlings out in the garden. Now, he didn’t just plant those out like most of us would, he used a post hole digger to dig 3’ deep holes, then planted seedlings in 6 inches of compost at the bottom of the hole. Using plastic laid right across the surface of the ground he created a greenhouse effect to urge the seedlings along. Given the soil in this region at this time of the season is warmer than the air, the seedlings prospered and as they grew he filled that hole, covering the stem as the plant grew. By the time the growing season really arrived the seedlings were visible above the ground level, with 2 to 2 1/2 feet of amazing, sturdy root growth already supporting them. Longer days and higher temps urged strong fast top growth, resulting in the earliest and best tomatoes anyone had ever seen.

I’ve threatened to try this for years. Never have. Maybe you’ll give it s shot?

It’s all about a good start. So if you want to try planting early as you see last year’s “volunteers” begin to pop up in the veggie garden, make sure your soil is perfect, make sure you can protect those seedlings and maybe, try a whole new kind of growing process. Good luck.

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