Saturday, April 5, 2008

Floppy Trees & Tomatoes (and a small rant)

Don’t let your tomatoes flop around and be fodder for a frost.

I wrote in an early draft for my book Roots Demystified:

“There are all kinds of ways to start plants well ahead of the time when it’s safe to transplant them into the garden. These include cloches (bell-like glass coverings), plastic-tubing walls filled with water to catch and hold the sun’s heat, and sunny windowsills or greenhouses. It’s been my observation, however, that large plants started well ahead of transplant time may not produce tomatoes any sooner than small seedlings planted after any threat of frost and in warm soil.”

I gave a talk today about roots. The conversation turned to tree trunks and how to best stake them. I talked about how the nurseries often tie the whole tree, from its base to nearly the tip of the growth, to a 1”x1” stake. When the poor trees are released from this bondage, they simple flop over. Trees need to blow in the wind to develop a sturdy trunk with a healthy girth. (See the illustration to see how to determine where to stake a flopping tree so it can move in the wind to be healthier tree.)

A woman came up to me after the talk to say last year she had started some tomatoes early in a Wall-of-Watertm—plastic-tubing walls filled with water to catch and hold the sun’s heat. When released from this frost protection, the plants immediately fell over—like the staked trees. She had to tie each new shoot to the hog-wire trellis she uses to grow tomatoes. The tomatoes set out after the average date of our last frost thrived. The wind buffeted them and they rambled up-and-through the hog wire with carefree abandon.

Begin Rant
I had to go to the plant nursery for a friend after the talk (on April 5th). The weather was an ideal 70 F plus and throngs of people were at the nursery. There were also throngs of tomato seedlings. I wanted to yell “All the ’ole timers say never set tomatoes out into the garden until after May 1st as there is still a chance for a hard frost in April.” But the nursery was happy to sell these tender seedlings to gardeners’ dreaming of early tomatoes. Most nurseries prey on those who try to jump-start tomatoes. Shame on them, but money at any cost is money I guess.

I suspect some will find brown-green plants laying flat on their faces before May 1st. (Some of the low-lying vineyards had to spray water last week on the vines to help prevent damage to the new buds as the temperature hovered around 32 F.)

Patience furthers. A gardener needs to calmly wait until the soil warms up before planting the treasured tomato seedlings. (Besides, there’s probably lots of weeding or composting to keep you busy!)
End Rant

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