Call Me Crazy, But I Planted Tomatoes

Okiedawn OK Zone 7March 20, 2014

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. : )


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Sounds fun :) I am still debating whether to start seeds or just go buy some plants to put in the ground when the time comes.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 11:03AM
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I planted the first week of March last year and then was a nervous wreck for the next month and a half. It paid off, but I was out there almost every night and morning covering and uncovering. The year before last I planted mid-March and was one of the only people I knew who got a good harvest of tomatoes. It was just so hot that summer. Good luck over the next couple of weeks!

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 12:09PM
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mksmth zone 6b Tulsa Oklahoma(6b)

I dont think you are crazy at all. If I was closer to your area I would probably do the same. I probably have 3-4 weeks before Ill feel comfortable leaving mine out. Who know with the weather we have had. The struggle im having is being able to harden seedlings off the way I should. I leave for work at 7 am and get home between 5:30 and 6. That only leaves the weekend for me to expose them without fear. I did set a flat of broccoli and herbs today because I need to get them going quickly. I put them on the north side of a big maple hoping to give them some filtered sun and out of the wind. Crossing fingers they are still alive when I get home.

Winston, At this point If I were you I would probably buy some transplants. Next year I probably wont mess with seedlings since Im single and only need 3 or 4 plants. it seems like the stores are starting to carry some of the more "fun" varieties anyways and thats the only reason for me to start seedlings.
Im not sure how close you are to tulsa but last year Southwood nursery gave away 1 free tomato plant for every canned good you donated.


    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 1:46PM
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I think my 2 inch tomato plants need to grow up before they get to stay out all night. LOL

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 6:59PM
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I potted up some very small purchased tomato plants today. They must be about the same size as Carols plants. I often cant plant till the first week in May. I plan on starting a few for planting around the first of June, I have never started seeds for late planting so it may be a waste of time.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 9:15PM
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I think I'm going to do the same after work today. I was waiting because it was supposed to be in the 20's next week but they've raised the forecast. I'm not going to plant all of them, just the early plants I have in pots. I won't be able to move them inside anymore, but they'll do better in the ground so I think the risk is worth it. I'm still going to cover them but I think my frost blankets will protect them enough now. I'd plant the rest of them if I trusted the forecast.


    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 10:30AM
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Dawn, thats exciting! The weather has been wonderful lately! We haven't been quite as warm as you (here in Edmond), but i sure am enjoying what we have had. I love warm days and cold nights, too bad none of my favorite crops do!

How warm does the soil need to be before putting toms in the ground? I'm still hardening off my giant tomatoes I started mid-january. Since they are so old I have given them a few weeks to slowly acclimate, but by next week they should be fine. I have one bed I'm going to gamble with and plant next week since its already set up with hoops, but I wonder if the soil is warm enough?

    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 2:06PM
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I've been debating about when I should plant some of my big tomato plants. I started some from seed around Halloween in my window sill that gets very little light so they grew very slowly. A couple of months ago my husband built me some grow light shelves and they took off after that. They are starting to develop flowers. I just set up some PVC pipes over a few of my raised beds and purchased more frost blankets so I'm ready to set up low tunnels.

I'm in the OKC area and the forecast is showing lows in the 30's next week. Next time it warms up, I'm hoping I can plant my tomato plants.


    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 6:19PM
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I think I figured it out...

    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 10:26PM
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Cynthiann -I'm totally "green" with envy. Them are some mighty fine 'mater plants you got there. ha!

Do you have or have access to "walls-o-water"? Those would help protect them if you can't resist the urge to put them in the ground.

Again - those are some REALLY healthy looking plants. Good Job!

    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 10:38PM
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I can resist the urge for now....but when April gets here, I don't know. I want to wait until after all the lows of 30's pass next week. Then I will be ready with everything to make low tunnels.


    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 10:47PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Winstonblues, At this late date, I'd buy transplants. If you start plants from seed now, it is likely they won't even begin to flower until late May, and the kind of heat that shuts down pollination/fruit set often arrives any time from late May to late June depending on what the weather is doing in any given year and depending on your location within the state.

Mike, When I worked, I'd start the plants out with an hour of sun after work (but I got home around 4:30 pm so still had sunlight) on Thursday, and would try to push it to 2.5 hours on Friday, then 3.5-4.5 on Saturday, and then 5-6 on Sunday. By Monday, I could leave them outdoors all day while I was at work. To ensure they wouldn't get wind burn, I placed them strategically where the house would block most wind. To get them enough light, I placed them in a spot where they'd get afternoon shade beginning in mid-afternoon. It took me quite a few years (and it involved rushing home from work sometimes during lunch so I could move them into or out of shade) to work out a schedule that worked---and then we moved here and I had to learn to garden someplace where the March wind can be brutal and the nights stay cold later in the year than they did in Fort Worth.

Leslie, Plant 'em if you've got 'em. (grin) With the way your area goes from too cold to too hot almost overnight, early planting is worth the risk.

I never trust the forecast because in the year I trusted it and didn't cover up anything on a night that had the potential to be kind of cool, the temperature dropped 18 degrees lower than forecast (32 instead of the 50 that was forecast) and almost my entire garden froze. I promptly bought my first row cover that year, and have used row cover ever since. Having the row cover gives me the confidence I can protect the plants as needed. I didn't need row cover at all in 2012, but used it on and off for a day or two a week until the end of the first week in May last year.

Cynthia, Your plants look great and are about the same size as the ones I transplanted into the ground this week. I had to do something because they were blooming and setting fruit and I wanted them to be in the ground so the roots could spread out and grow in order to support the fruit that had set. Potting them up to bigger containers would have been so much work and would have required so much more soil-less mix that I just decided to put them in the ground.

Alexis, The soil temperature at planting depth should be at least 50 degrees, and I normally wait until it is at least 55 degrees. At soil temperatures less than 50, the plants won't grow much at all, so there is nothing gained by putting the plants in your garden beds as long as the soil is cool. In the raised bed I had prepared for these tomato plants, the soil temperature was staying in the mid-60s during the day and dropping into the 50s at night. If you cover the proposed planting area with clear plastic, it just takes a few sunny days to raise the temperatures. My grade-level soil was staying roughly 10 degrees cooler than my raised bed soil. It varies daily, depending on the amount of sunshine in a given day, but my soil temps are, in general, warmer than I'd expect in late March. I normally won't put tomato plants in the ground until the asparagus has begun emerging. My asparagus began emerging around March 9th or 10th, and had I not been out at fires for five consecutive days/nights last week, I probably would have put tomato plants in the ground a week earlier than I did.

I did put plastic over the ground to warm it up for a few days before I transplanted the tomato plants into their raised bed. Plastic + abundant sunshine = warm soil. In my greenhouse, even with 50% shade cloth on it to keep it from getting too hot, the air temperature is hitting the 80s-90s by noon every day, even with both doors open. You can create that sort of greenhouse effect in a raised bed by putting clear plastic over the soil. You can place it directly on the soil, using something to hold it in place so it won't blow away, or you can put it over hoops errected over the beds, effectively turning a planting bed into a mini-greenhouse.

I never transplant more tomatoes into the ground than I can cover with my heavy-duty row cover. With the hoops in place and with bird netting placed over the hoops (to protect them from the all-too-frequent Oklahoma hail), it only takes a few minutes to throw row cover over the hoops when cold weather threatens.

For anyone who is contemplating using the Wall-O-Water plant protectors that Paula mentioned, I'd like to add they don't work in my sloping garden. I didn't think they would, but I had to try to be sure. When I filled up one WOW with water, it promptly fell over and rolled downhill. So, if you are going to use them, you need a flat place to put them.

The gentleman (the late Gordon Graham of Edmond, OK) who holds the world record for the largest tomato ever grown (a 7 lb. 12 oz. Delicious tomato) would put his tomato plants in the ground a full two months before his average last frost date. To transplant tomato plants into the ground in February, he'd use WOWs with a tripod of stakes or sticks inside the growing area in the center of the WOW so that his WOWs would remain upright and in place. When the plants got to the top of the first WOW, he'd put another WOW right on top of the first. Usually by the time his tomato plants were growing up out of the top of the 2nd WOW, it was warm enough that he could remove the WOWs.

So, while I planted early, I didn't even plant early at all compared to when Gordon Graham used to plant.

Because we are having anywhere from 1 to 3 days a week with temperatures in the upper 70s through mid-80s, the growth of everything I have in the ground is exploding. The cold temperatures expected for the next few days likely will stall the growth, but that will give me a chance to pull out all the weeds that are sprouting.

I hope to start putting my home-grown tomato seedlings in the ground late next week after the March cold spell has ended. They are mid-way through the hardening off process, so they will be ready to put in the ground in another 4 or 5 days, but I'll wait until the air and soil temperatures have recovered from the late-March cold spell. It will depend on what the forecast looks like for latest March/earliest April.

Carol, Those two-inch tall plants will get big before you know it. Mine were about that size, or ever so slightly larger, when I started hardening them off outside in the sun, and have doubled in size since then. All they needed was some real light from the sun.


    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 10:26AM
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Okay Dawn, I will call you crazy, but I've been guilty of the same in years past - besides you always get away with things the rest of us envy. Sometimes that urge just won't go away - and when you have the first ripe tomato we will all show up at your house.
Cynthia - your plants are fantastic - yes, I would say you did it right…they look so healthy and stocky.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 8:14PM
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Dawn, do you use Agribon material this time of year? I've got 62 plants that are too ready for the ground in a heated greenhouse, and some, but not enough plastic for the farm in Lincoln County. I'd use 19. I'll heat the ground and raised beds beforehand with black plastic, but am still worried about setting them out. I'm 45 minutes away most days so this crazy weather ....

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 8:34PM
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Dawn, do you use Agribon material this time of year? I've got 62 plants that are too ready for the ground in a heated greenhouse, and some, but not enough plastic for the farm in Lincoln County. I'd use 19. I'll heat the ground and raised beds beforehand with black plastic, but am still worried about setting them out. I'm 45 minutes away most days so this crazy weather ....

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 8:36PM
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Thanks for the info! Do transplants bought from the store need to be hardened off?

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 8:55PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Cochise, I will phrase this as carefully as I can without intending any insult to Agribon-19 which is occupying a storage bin in my garage right now, while "the good stuff" is outside draped over the tomato plant row.

I have used Agribon for about a decade now, and my favorite Christmas present one year was a 500' roll of it. I still use it when the temperatures are only going to be a little cold or a little frosty. Our property is a low-lying creek hollow in the already low-lying Red River Valley near Thackerville, so we can have a frost or freeze weeks later than neighbors a mile away on higher ground. I have to compensate for that by covering up my plants at times while they can leave theirs exposed to the weather. Sometimes we are, briefly, 10 or more degrees colder than they are, which can wreak havoc on my garden in spring and fall.

However, for the important plants in the garden (and in my garden, tomatoes are always the Very Important Plants), I now use a very heavy-weight frost blanket made by DeWitt. It is fairly new on the market and I bought it last year. The roll I bought was 10' or 12' wide and 250' long. It has some sort of fancy name (and I'll get it wrong, but then I'll find and link the product so you don't have to search for it)) like Ultimate Supreme Frost Blanket. I love, love, love this stuff. It is rated to give plants 10 degrees of protection. In my garden it has given them much better than 10 degrees---maybe about 14 degrees. It is very heavy (3 oz) and I don't like using it without hoops to hold it above the plants because it can crush very small seedlings. I generally only use it at night and remove it as early as possible the next morning because it does not let a lot of light through. I still use Agribon on plants of lesser importance or when it is only a little cold or frosty, but I am in love with this heavyweight frost blanket.

Winstonblues, The transplants at the stores are supposed to be hardened off, and they almost always are, but not necessarily. Look for transplants whose leaves are thicker and a dark green, and stay away from any transplants whose leaves look very thin and very light green or yellowish-green, because they likely are not fully hardened off.

Here is a link that might be useful: Ultimate Frost Thermal Blanket

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 8:33AM
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Thanks :)

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 12:10PM
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I put 15 tomatoes in the ground today in wall o waters. They were seedlings I grew and are only about 4". In my past experience, the wall o waters make small seedlings catch up close to the ones I'd buy at the store. Have about 30 more to plant but didn't have time. I usually try my luck early with seedlings and just replace any that die from frost/cutworms/whatever else with store bought.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 11:24PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Since I raise my own tomato transplants, I sow extra seed and have extra plants for backup. Thus, if disaster strikes in any shape, form or fashion once I have the tomato plants in the ground, I have flats of backup plants in the greenhouse for another few weeks. Since I began growing the backup plants (the year after a forecast low of 50 degrees the first week in May was a bit off and Mother Nature gave us an actual low of 32 degrees and almost everything froze back to the ground), I've never had to do a large-scale replacement of the tomato plants. I have used a handful some years to replace a plant that the deer ate (before we raised the 4' high fence to 8' high) or one that a cutworm got or whatever. Usually I give some of the backup plants away to friends here near me and then bring the rest to the Spring Fling where they seem to always manage to find a home.

If the early plants freeze, the worst thing that will happen is that we won't be harvesting our first tomato and eating our first BLT of the year in April. That's not the worst thing that could happen. It is just that as I have refined my planting/ plant protection methods in order to have ripe maters that early, we have gotten spoiled and expect to have early tomatoes every year. Some years we extend the tomato harvest until December or January by bringing a few tomato plants in pots into the unheated greenhouse, but the flavor of fruit that ripens in cold conditions and less intense sunlight in fall/winter is almost as bad as grocery store tomatoes---so barely worth the effort. Early fruit in spring gets enough heat on the warm days and enough sunlight that it is much tastier that late fruit in fall, do that's where I'd rather extend the season---early rather than late.

With a forecast low of 37, of course I covered up the plants last night. This morning I awoke to 31 degrees at our house, so I expect they will be fine even if the temperature dropped lower than the current temp or if it drops a bit more before sunrise. I haven't been downstairs yet to check the Min-Max thermometer. With a temperature here of 31, I bet it dropped to something like 25 -28 at our county's OK Mesonet station, which generally is colder at night in winter/spring than we are.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 7:55AM
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I'm going to plant the rest of my tomatoes this weekend. I'll have a few extras just in case, but I don't think I'll need them. I think I may plant more than just tomatoes too. Not peppers or the other things that are usually planted a few weeks after the last frost, but everything else is going in the ground. I can cover things if I have to, but I'm not planning on covering anything except maybe the tomatoes just to be safe.


    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 12:00PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Leslie, Yay! Planting time is my favorite time of the year, or at least it is until harvest time replaces it as my favorite time.

Have you reached your average last frost date yet? I know it must be getting close. My average last frost date is tomorrow, and I may celebrate that date by putting corn seed in the ground so we'll have Early Sunglow corn to harvest by Memorial Day weekend. Well, assuming pests, tornadoes, hail, flash flooding, wildfire or some other natural disaster don't get the corn plants before the corn gets harvested.

On nights our forecast low is in the low 40s, I usually worry a little about the tomato plants but don't cover them up. If it is forecast for the upper 30s I do cover them. Around here, a forecast low of 38 or 39 usually gives us an actual low near freezing accompanied by frost.

I just finally got around to potting up sweet pepper plants yesterday and they really won't even be large enough to put in the ground for another 2 or 3 weeks. I started hot pepper seeds very late, so they likely won't be big enough to transplant outside until latest April or early May.

I am not rushing to get beans, squash or anything else into the least not for another week or two. At our house, we really have reached "dead week", which is the quiet week or two in between the point where all the cool-season crops are planted and it is still too cold/too early to plant the warm-season crops. Well, except for tomatoes....but they always get special handling here.

I use dead week to work on larger planting flowers or cleaning up and mulching perennial/shrub beds, or starting seeds of warm-season flowers in the greenhouse.

It is kind of drizzly here this morning, although I think the afternoon will be a lot warmer, sunnier and nicer. It might be a good afternoon to garden, but I won't be out there in the garden because I have to be someplace else. I hope to spend all day out in the garden tomorrow though. The flower border needs weeding, mulching and some pruning back of last year's dormant foilage on some of the perennials.

The tomato plants that already are in the ground sure do look happy. Even though we didn't get much rain, the rain water always seems to perk them up and make them happy. The smaller tomato transplants grown from seed are in the greenhouse today to keep them out of the wind. If the wind has dropped significantly by the time I make it back home from a funeral this afternoon, I might carry the tomato seedlings outside to the patio for a couple of hours of sunlight and wind exposure.


    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 12:23PM
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