Carolyn Singer: Tempted by tomatoes
The Seasoned Gardener
Of course I know better. Soil isn’t even warm yet in my garden. And based on 42 years of gardening at the elevation of 2,600 feet, there could be a May frost.
Or even a late spring snowstorm.
But gardeners are eternal optimists. In my garden, it is possible to harvest tomatoes before the Fourth of July. The June 13 frost I witnessed in my early years of gardening on Sonntag Hill has not been repeated.
If you have wandered into a local nursery this past week, you have seen the temptations. Early starts of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and even pumpkins promise a harvest for any gardener willing to try. Annual flowers add the color we have been craving.
And so I quickly fill a basket with annual herbs and vegetables, followed by a second basket. While I select the perfect young healthy starts, I am feeling that I am somehow setting a bad example for any beginning Nevada County gardeners who might be observing.
These warm-weather herbs and vegetables will not go into my cold edible garden soil. Each garden is different in its exposure. Mine is slow to warm. A few yards away, down a gentle slope, is the site of a large cold frame built for my nursery years ago. Once the shelter for perennial seedlings and cuttings, in May it protects all the annual vegetables potted up into larger containers.
I purchase plants only when I know I will be able to attend to them right away. I do not leave them in six-packs or three-inch nursery containers. The tomatoes go into my soil mix in a two-gallon pot, the herbs and other tender edibles into one-gallon. Within a day or two growth is noticeable.
The soil mix has colloidal phosphate added to develop strong roots.
By mid-May I fertilize the young starts with kelp, applied as a foliar spray late in the day. Kelp strengthens cells, increasing a resistance to frost.
In garden soil, transplants will not continue active growth unless the soil is warm enough to release nutrients. One year even my two-gallon tomatoes planted in the edible garden in late May showed signs of nutrient deficiency in early June. The weather had turned cold for a couple of weeks and the effect was immediate.
Weather in any given year is a major factor affecting growth and production. Cloudy days reduce light, and even smoke in fire season slows production and ripening later in the harvest season. Elevation, exposure (microclimates) and even soil tilth may all affect the release of nutrients.
Beginners would be well-advised to study the recommended planting dates in the University of California Extension planting guide for western Nevada County. Based on input from many experienced local gardeners, it is a wealth of information for many crops. Of course you may always plant a little earlier than the guide outlines.
In the current catalog for Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, there are mulches that may be used to warm the soil.
Once those tender vegetables are in the ground, late spring winds can be damaging. Having a row cover handy is a good idea. These are light enough to lay on top of the foliage without damaging a young plant. Or use short bamboo stakes to hold the row cover just above the plant.
Local nurseries offer plants for sale in early May. Gardeners in lower elevations of Nevada County may take full advantage of the first availability of the tender vegetables, flowers and herbs. Gardeners in higher elevations and those with cold microclimates must wait patiently for warmer days.
No wonder we are quick to reach for tomato plants when they first appear in the nursery. But thanks to the skill and dedication of local growers, healthy starts will be available for weeks. There’s no rush.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her website at carolynsingergardens.com.
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