Call Me Crazy, But I Planted Tomatoes
I celebrated the arrival of spring by putting tomato plants in the ground yesterday. I didn't even count, but it was about 18 or 20 of them.
I haven't completely lost my mind. I had prewarmed the soil in the raised bed by covering it with plastic. For the most part, our temperatures are pretty warm--we have hit the mid-80s at our house several times this month, including an 85-degree day just a couple of days ago. The nights are still cold, but I have several options to protect the plants, including a heavy-duty type frost blanket row cover rated to give 10 degrees of frost protection.
These are large, purchased tomato plants I've had in pots since mid-February, and about 25% of them already had set fruit, including Early Girl, Black Cherry and Better Bush. These are the ones I get early every year in order to have tomatoes to harvest by the end of April.
When I planted them yesterday, I put a cat litter bucket filled with sun-warmed water behind each plant. I didn't mulch the ground yet because I want it to be exposed to the sunlight to warm it up. I put the frost blanket over the plants well before sunset because our forecast low was 37 degrees. Of course, we awakened to 29 degrees, but I expected that. We always go lower than forecast at this time of year, and I am used to coping with "late" freezes through the first week of May in about 8-9 years out of 10 even though our average last frost date is March 28th. (This is one reason we all need to remember that even when the average last frost date rolls around, we still have a 50% chance of a frost after that. At my house it seems like an 80-90% chance instead of 50%.)
Today I will drag out the hoops and set them up over the bed. This gives me an extra option for the cold nights expected next week. I can either put the floating row cover over the hoops or I can put it on the ground, letting it float over the tops of the plants and I can put greenhouse plastic over the hoops to create a low tunnel over the tomato plants. Or, I can have one layer of row cover over the hoops and another layer floating on the ground/plants.
In case you are new to this forum, please understand I am not suggesting anyone else here go outside and put their tomato plants in the ground unless they (a) don't mind taking a risk and losing all the plants to frosts or to freezing weather; or (b) have established, proven methods to protect the plants in their area.
The OSU-recommended planting dates for tomatoes in our state are April 10-30, but I often push the limits and plant early to ensure I'll get good fruit set before the insane summer heat arrives. Some years, in my part of OK, it gets hot enough for the temperatures to impede fruit set as early as the first or second week of May (though June is more typical), so I know from 15 years of gardening here in this specific location that the earlier I get the plants in the ground, the better my overall harvest will be. When I plant early like this, it generally works out well and isn't much extra trouble, except in 2007 when we had three weeks of snow and sleet and cold rain after I had tomato plants that were knee-high. I covered those with low tunnels made from 6 mm clear plastic and they were fine, but I was a nervous wreck for 3 long, cold weeks.
My best tomato-canning year ever here came in the year I was able to start putting tomato plants in the ground around March 8th or 9th (I think that was 2012), and that's partly because our last frost was either March 8th or 9th and we really hadn't had much cold weather in the week or two before that. Most years we aren't that lucky.
Now that I have my first warm-season plants in the ground, I hope to finish up the cold-season plantings today. It is kind of backwards, but I've been working around the winter fire season, and I just try to do the best I can to get everything in the ground more or less on time...or even early. : )