Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Gambling with Mother Nature

The last frost date is one of the most important days of the year for us northern gardeners. Nearly everything is measured from this date or its twin at the end of the season the first frost date. We're supposed to plant two weeks before it, around it, indoors six weeks before, or two weeks after. Alternatively we can plant after it so long as the ground is at least fifty degrees if we want good germination. When it comes down to it, however, the last frost date is a guess. It will sometimes be too soon and often too late. It is a date designed to screw you over a little each year by robbing you of potentially good growing weather while at the same time preventing most major catastrophes by protecting you from most late frosts.

There are plenty of charts out there telling you when the last frost date is for your area, but I've found it is far more reliable to just ask gardeners that live nearby. They have a much better sense for when the last frost is in your little micro-climate. For me I know that planting the second weekend in May carries some risk that I'll hit a frost, but with some good forecasting you can at least make an educated gamble.

My tomato seedlings are very precious to me as a lot of hard work has gone into raising them to be healthy and ready to go. Still this weekend twenty-two of them will get plunked into the ground to start their way towards greatness. I have read in a couple places that getting tomatoes out early in chilly weather isn't worth it, but what I observed last year doesn't convince me. Since I replaced bunny chewed patches with left over seedlings I got a chance to see how the staggered planting influenced yields, and the earliest produced the best and had the largest fruits. While the later plants caught up in size above ground rather quickly, the earlier plants had much more complex root systems when I pulled everything at the end of the year.

Planting out on a warm weekend in mid-April last year taught me that April is too soon to plant tomatoes, and that even if a tomato plant doesn't grow up in chilly weather they do grow down just fine. The cold-weather tomatoes didn't add any additional leaves but their root systems were well developed after two weeks of near freezing weather before they lost out to a killing frost. Just because you can't see it doesn't mean a plant isn't busy getting something done!

I did an experiment this year with the seedlings where I transplanted half of each variety into a pot with miracle grow and the other into a pot with soilless mix and a pinch of added Espoma Tomato Tone. In the first few days after transplanting the miracle grow plants grew faster, but at this point I'm not seeing any real difference. I plan on tracking the difference all throughout the life cycle of those that I plant two of to see if there is any long term difference as well.

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