Is it safe to plant tomatoes now?
Is it safe to plant my tomatoes now? Lycopersicon esculentum, the marvelous tomato, is originally a perennial tropical herb of South America, which explains why it hates to get its tootsies, tender shoots and blossoms (or even its harvested fruit) chilled, and curls up and dies when frost bites. A sudden move outdoors can do it in. Air and soil temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit induces something like suspended animation. The plant just quits, resuming activity only when it warms up again. Such on-again, off-again progress slows maturity considerably. It isn’t a shorter growing season alone that makes it harder to ripen tomatoes in the mountains than in Denver.
When it feels like summer, and even people who don’t call themselves gardeners are in the grip of that primal urge to plant something, we are impatient. We head for the nurseries on Mother’s Day intent on satisfying our craving for bright flowers and a tomato plant or two and want to get them in the ground immediately. This may not be the best idea. Take time to figure out the optimal planting period for whatever you have chosen, frost-sensitive or not.
There are many tools to help. The easiest thing to do is ask somebody, a nursery professional or an experienced neighbor. Ask at your nursery. It has a lot at stake; nobody wants you to succeed with the plants they sell you more than they do.
Find out the average last frost date in your area. The CSU Cooperative Extension, which sponsors the Master Gardener Program, is a good source for this, as well as much other information. In my garden it is May 18. I’ve been keeping track for more than two decades, and the actual date ranges from April 25 to June 22, a two-month spread! The last frost is usually progressively later, moving upvalley from Glenwood Springs to Aspen just like the dandelion tide, but not always. There may be several microclimates where you live. Within my 1⁄3-acre lot, the temperature varies as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit from the north side of the house to the south and from sheltered places to exposed ones.
The first European settlers came up with some rules of thumb. When the apricots bloom, it is time to plant the peas. When the scrub oaks leaf out, it is safe to plant the beans and squash. Tomatoes should go in the ground when the oaks bloom and the black locusts, the nervous Nellies of trees, finally venture forth. Controlled studies by scientists have proven such correlations valid, though there are no guarantees, as hungry black bears will testify: sometimes even the oaks are fooled.
There is no right answer to the question: “Is it time to plant my tomatoes?” There are so many variables. We can make an educated guess, though.
Of course you needn’t sit on your green thumb waiting until all chance of a late frost is gone. Just as soon as plants are available and you can get a spade in the ground, there are many perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees, fruit trees and berry bushes, and even annuals like pansies that will be grateful for the chance to get into the ground before the onslaught of summer heat and dryness.
As for me, in a week or so I’ll start getting my tender plants, the tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplant, used to the outdoors. Around Memorial Day, the traditional “safe date,” I’ll start thinking about planting them into their summer garden home. If the nights haven’t warmed up, I might wait until the end of June. It’s no big deal. I think I can find a few other things to do in the garden until the time is right.
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