Not putting the tomatoes in yet

Skinny tomato seedlings yearn for the sun

“Have you put your tomatoes in yet?” The question echoes through all the vegetable gardens in chilly rain-soaked Maryland. And no, mine aren’t in yet, despite having sat on my back porch desperately short of sunlight for weeks now; let me tell you why.

This is one reason – soil temperatures still short of 60 degrees. To be honest, I didn’t measure in the spot I’m planting my tomatoes, since that’s over in my community garden plot, and I wasn’t going to drive over just to take a photo. But I think my backyard is pretty close, temperature-wise. The full-sun community garden may be a smidge warmer, enough to take the chance on this (finally!) sunny Saturday – except that another cold front is coming through this afternoon, and temperatures will plummet, settling as low as the high 30s on Sunday night. Not to mention possible thunderstorms. I’m not going to put my poor babies through that. I’m waiting at least another few days.

Now, if you have already put your plants in – I’m not shaming you. I have been there, often enough – in fact I lost most of my tomatoes two years ago in the freak mid-May frost. But the thing is, weather swings like this are just not freaky anymore; they’re the way it is. We can’t rely on formulas like “plant your tomatoes on Mother’s Day” any longer (lovely as this Mother’s Day was, for a few hours between drizzle and rain). We all need to get soil (or compost) thermometers and use them; we all need to check long-range forecasts and obsess over weather with the best of them. (My personal favorite sites are Weather Underground and the Capital Weather Gang, but everyone has opinions.)

And we need to be ready to keep those tomatoes inside, or have something ready to protect them when they’re planted outside. Just throwing a light blanket, sheet, piece of floating row cover, or even a paper bag over them helps if temps are going down (make sure it’s anchored if wind is expected), and there are many protection devices on the market if you are determined to get those early July fruits. You can also warm the soil ahead of planting by putting down black plastic (it does help if the sun is shining, though). Also, if you are in the habit of planting your tomatoes deep (which helps them form stabilizing roots off the stem), consider laying them sideways in a trench rather than digging a hole straight down – soil is warmer near the surface. Raised beds can also help, since they warm faster than in-ground gardens.

Just think how you’d feel if someone tied you to the ground out in a mud-pit through cold rain and high winds and frost! We are all yearning for the sun around here these days, but we can’t change the weather, so we might as well stay inside (you can give your seedlings a cup of (compost) tea and a good book if it makes you feel better). I wish mine were still under grow lights, but I don’t have room for them there anymore – too many other plants!

Remember to check out our Year of the Tomato page for good advice on keeping your tomatoes healthy. And if you haven’t bought tomato seedlings yet (good for you for waiting!), Jon has a new video on how to make your selection.

6 Comments on “Not putting the tomatoes in yet

  1. In the spirit of full disclosure, I put my tomatoes and peppers in this weekend. It was a calculated risk – my plants were bursting at the seams in the tiny pots, and they yearned for more space. I immediately covered them with a row cover, so I'm hoping that they're protected adequately. At this point I felt like their poor, rootbound root systems were a greater detriment than putting them in the ground this week. Time will reveal all, I guess.

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  2. There's definitely that point where the plants are going to suffer if they don't get out of those little pots. I'm glad I started mine fairly late this year – although I gave the peppers an early start and they are definitely rootbound. And nothing is totally hardened off because it's been hard to take them completely outside.

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  3. I was in the same place as Donna. So I put mine in a week ago. But I have very tall raised beds, hoop house covers and green house plastic over them. At night they are tucked in with warm incandescent rope lights to keep the chill off the little ones. Ironically, I lived in the Pacific Northwest before moving to MD, and that's how I had to start them every year because of exactly the type of weather we're having this season. I'm hoping the work translates. Only time ( an sunshine) will tell! Happy Growing!!!

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  4. I am in the UK and as I write this it feels like March outside and we are contemplating putting the heating back on. It's June 2nd and we should be having to contend with a heatwave not gale force winds and low temperatures. My tomatoes are staying in the greenhouse this year I was already considering this but the weather has made up my mind for me. My Garden Pearl are in flower so here's hoping.

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