Is it time to plant tomatoes?


We had a run of soil-warming sun this week, and now we’re in the high season of spring. Shovels and rakes are getting a workout, seed and plant sales are booming, and gardeners are waking up with sore muscles.

There’s a lot to do in the garden and a lot to talk about.

Earlier this week, a neighbor had a couple of tomato starts in pots in his driveway, and they sparked a chat about whether it was safe to plant them in the garden yet. This may be the oldest mid-April topic of conversation in all of garden-dom. It comes down to when people think the danger of frost is past, and people have surprisingly strong opinions about this.

He was ready to plant, confident there would be no more frost. I said sometime in May still seemed like a safer bet. But there’s really no point arguing about this, so we didn’t.

He planted his tomatoes last Sunday, but maybe my comment introduced some doubt: When I looked out the window Monday morning, he had encased their tomato cages tightly in plastic wrap. And for once I was right about something: there was frost on Wednesday morning.

We’re busy now

There are several reasons besides frost-worry to wait and plant tender vegetables and flowers later.  The biggest reason is that in this mid-April moment, we have a thousand things to do – and to think and talk about – that don’t involve tomatoes, eggplant, beans, corn, squash or peppers.

  • There’s so much to plant: all the cool weather crops, including peas, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, and don’t forget green onions! In the flower department, it’s time to plant sweet peas, alyssum and perennials, to name just a few. Some gardeners have already done all this and think the rest of us are slackers.
  • We have new reasons to talk about the weather. The forecast is for a warm, drier-than-normal spring. Most of the state is in a drought. The overall climate change prediction is for a hotter than normal, drier and possibly longer summer. “Normal” may soon be an obsolete term for describing weather.

This may mean we have heat even tomatoes won’t like. More gardeners are learning about shade cloth, which is widely available for sale now, but can also be a repurposed sheet or other lightweight fabric. It can spare your tomatoes and their full-sun colleagues, like peppers and eggplant, from sunburn.

  • How we use water is also a hot topic. Twenty years ago, no one worried about summer drought tolerance; now we do.

Rising city water bills remind us that water is a precious resource, and city people envy those who have their own wells. We’re thinking about how to get through the summer without going broke or squandering that precious resource. Lawns will likely be browner, sooner. Most of us are thinking hard about how to use less water.

  • Deciding what to plant, how much, and where is getting more complicated. Lettuce and other heat-averse plant may need more shade – especially in the afternoon – than they did in the past. More people may have success growing sweet potatoes. Heaven help us, next they’ll be growing okra.
  • The joy of germination will overcome our worries and restore our hope. Watching seeds sprout soothes a troubled mind.

It makes sense to buy bedding plants if you only want four kale plants. But now nurseries and plant departments sell little plastic pots of every vegetable – including sprouted beans and corn – corn!! – even though both germinate as reliably as the sun comes up in the east.

  • What’s new and better this year? I’m excited about this year’s debut of slender French green beans, aka haricot verts, that are pole beans rather than bush beans. The bush version is great, but pole beans take up less space. The real reason to try the pole version, though, is that it’s so much fun to watch them twining their way up to Jack and the Beanstalk territory. And until they get so tall they’re above your reach, they’re easier to harvest.

I had never seen them in seed racks or catalogs before, but last fall, the Seattle Urban Farm Company had some – and they sold out. Now they’re available from Renee’s Garden if you don’t mind buying the ones that are not certified organic.

Gardeners are always called on to be creative, resilient, and adaptable. We’re also learning, year by year, to be more mindful of the web of life in which our gardens grow and to protect and preserve the pollinators and the living soil that make our gardens possible.

So whatever the weather is like this year – and in the years to come – we’ll still be growing.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


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  • mtndancer

    Even when frost danger is over, tomatoes and other heat-lovers will be "insulted" if the nights are too cold, and it could slow their growth. Wait a bit.

    Saturday, April 20 Report this

  • Boatyarddog

    Mtndancer is correct.

    Look for mini climate zones near your home that hold heat.

    These areas can be used to facilitate heat loving plants.

    You can create these zones using land scape rock, piles of river rock, even black plastic sheeting on a wall or planting your tomatoes with in a barrel.

    Saturday, April 20 Report this