Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tomato and Pepper Gardening in the Pac NW

We finally got some great gardening weather yesterday, which means oh boy am I sore this morning. Sore, but happy. I got two roses, lemon verbena, and lungwort into the ground.  I transplanted a few strawberries out of the shade, as well as some asparagus that I thought was dead due to constant feasting-on by bunnies, and caged two spots for the asparagus (one was big enough that I didn't want to move it, so I put a tomato cage over it and surrounded it with fine chicken wire.)  I weeded two huge beds, and cleaned up around my rosemary shrub, and opened a whole new veggie bed into which I planted my sacrificial tomatoes.

What are sacrificial tomatoes?  Those are those poor things that I plant waaaay too early.   There are a few ways to do super early tomatoes.   You can plant them in soil that's a 'hot bed'--basically a compost pile that's gotten past the super hot stage but still has latent heat.  Warm soil is even more important than air temperature--tomato roots go into shock or can be damaged severely by cold soil.  They need a minimum of fifty degrees Farenheit, I hear, though 55 or 60 would be much better.  Also, if you have a lot of warm days together in spring, you can double dig and then fluff the soil on those days.  If the nights don't get super cold again for a long stretch, you may find that the soil is okay for tomatoes when you measure the temperature.  You can also use solar heat.  After fluffing the soil on a warm-ish day, lay down black landscape fabric or black plastic.  After some days, as long as the nights aren't too cold, the soil should be plenty warm for your tomatoes.

If the soil is warm enough, then the rest is a snap.  I've heard of serious tomato gardeners starting as early as March.  It's doable ....  If you've got enough solar heat, you can go entirely solar for early spring growing--black landscape fabric on the ground, and make a mini greenhouse out of a tomato cage and plastic.  (Make sure there's some airflow, like a few small holes in the top, to vent excess heat and to discourage mold.)  If you really want to go nuts, you could probably find some greenhouse soil warming wires and plug those in.  

My method is to fluff the soil on at least a 4 foot by 12 foot bed on a warm day in February.  I fluff it again on a warm day in April (this also eliminates weeds,) then take a very early, hardy variety like Early Girl (indeterminate, aka vining) or Oregon Spring (determinate, aka bush), fluff the soil during a warm day in May, mix in goat manure from a compost pile (or straight from the barn works too though the pile will be nice and hot if its been in the sun and decomposing nicely) and then set in the plants.  If I hear about cold nights coming, I shelter them with plastic, otherwise I leave the poor dears to their own devices.  

Now the really fun part is this:  I don't care if I get tomatoes off these plants.  If I do, great.  What I'm looking for is A. whether they live (they usually do) and B. when they start to grow.  Make a mark on the stake or cage if you have to, but usually it's pretty obvious when they start to take off.  That's when I plant my precious darlings that I've carefully grown from seed in the wild world.  This has worked much better for me than taking soil temperatures and looking at average day and night air temperatures trying to figure out when it'll be okay for the tomatoes. Typically about two weeks after that, longer if it suddenly gets cold again (which has happened in June before,) I'll plant my peppers.  

BTW, if a tomato dies, it may not be the cold.  I've bought cheap tomato starts that ended up with some nasty diseases.  I've also had some get sunburn (parts of the tops of the leaves turn pale) because the grower didn't harden them off first.  Keep notes about this stuff and avoid growers that consistently sell plants with diseases or that haven't been properly hardened off, but don't avoid them from one failure--one of my favorite local growers had a really bad year and I lost almost all the tomatoes from their nursery that year, but previous and following years their plants have been far better quality than other nurseries.  It would have been a shame to give up on them due to one bad year.  (Most of the other growers had the same problem that year, btw.  Stuff happens.)

Happy growing!

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