by Jim Longstreet
Now is the time to plant your tomato seeds inside to get ready for an April planting outside. That advice is for gardeners of the “set it and forget it” variety who do not want to worry about frost and are willing to wait for April 15 when the danger of frost is usually gone. But if you are diligent and conscientious and if you want a longer growing period for your plants to flower and set fruit, then you can courageously plant your tomato plants outside even now. By June 15 the morning lows are usually above 70 degrees when the larger tomato plants all but stop setting fruit for the summer. But if you plant now, you can usually more than double your yield than if you waited until April.
TIPS for tomato growers who plant now:
1. Cover your plants every night it is predicted to be in the 30s or less. You can use plastic buckets and/or plastic tarps. On successive days of freezing weather, you can keep the tarp over the buckets. I have done so for as many as five days without ill effect. Be sure to have at least two layers of complete cover, or the part of the plant that touches the freezing plastic will die. On extra cold nights when it is down in the lower twenties it is a good idea to put under the tarp a heat source like a “trouble light” which can take the edge off. I usually put the light in a 5-gallon plastic bucket turned on its side so no water can get to the light. Be sure to run the electrical current through a relocatable power tap or surge strip just in case. Also, be sure to uncover your garden when the sun comes up and it gets above freezing, or you can overheat your plants. Fortunately, in Texas it is not illegal to kill a plant.
2. Make sure your soil has been significantly amended (enriched) with compost. Tomatoes are heavy users of soil nutrients and do not do well in our indigenous alkaline soil here in West Texas. Use as much compost as you can. My soil is at least 50% compost each
3. Don’t over water or underwater. If you can stick your finger down in the soil a couple of inches and pull it out and see dark (brown) moist soil sticking to your finger, then it is moist enough. If you are able, use rainwater.
4. Choose a hybrid tomato that does well in this climate with strong disease resistances such as either Celebrity or Tycoon.
5. After the danger of frost (April 15) it is always best to cage your plants which will get them off the ground and prevent mold and rot. If you are a pro-active gardener and plant now, you will be eating your home-grown delicious tomatoes by the end of April with an oversupply to share with your grateful neighbors.