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Archive for Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Tomatoes, corn top to-do list

April 21, 2004

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Now that the overnight temperatures aren't likely to drop much below 50, we can begin planting the warm-weather vegetables that don't tolerate frost and require higher ground temperatures.

A prudent gardener will start out slowly. We have had several days in the 80s, so it's tempting to think that summer has arrived, but the height of the gardening season is still a ways off. It's far too early to plant all the summer crops, but we can make a beginning now.

Tempting tomatoes

Tomatoes are the one item that most of us want to get in the ground as soon as possible, so that we have some chance of slicing a ripe one on the Fourth of July. Although tomatoes are a tropical plant, the seeds we buy have been bred to accommodate the vagaries of the northern climate to some extent, which takes some of the risk out of planting our first tomatoes in April.

What I like to do is set out a few tomatoes, usually Early Girl plants, after April 20, which is the average date of our last killing frost. If I lose them, I lose them, but if I don't, I'll have tomatoes in late June or early July. Around May 1, I can put the rest of my tomato plants in the garden without much fear of damage from a late cold snap.

If you buy tomato plants from an enclosed greenhouse, be sure to harden them off before you put them in the ground. Leave the plants outside for increasingly longer periods during the day and evening, so they can become accustomed to the wind and the slight drop in temperature after the sun goes down. Be sure to water them generously, as they will dry out quickly. After a few days you can leave the plants out all night and then transplant them into the garden.

If you buy plants that have never spent the night outdoors and skip this step, your plants will either die or struggle enough that they will grow way behind schedule and produce little fruit.

Cravings for corn

The first seeding of sweet corn also can go into the ground this week. Corn seed won't germinate in cool conditions and that first seeding might be lost if the weather changes. But once again, if the weather remains reasonably warm, you'll have sweet corn early.

You should do multiple plantings of sweet corn at 10-day intervals in May, so that your crop won't ripen all at once. If you are fantasizing about having corn on the cob to go with the sliced tomatoes you'll serve at the Fourth of July picnic, the first seeding is a good time to try a fast-growing corn, such as Precocious or Kandy Kwik, both of which mature in less than 70 days.

May brings more planting

By the first week of May, we can start thinking about planting peppers, eggplant, squash and beans. All of these vegetables are more insistent on warm weather, but they usually can get started in early May with no problem.

The exception is that beans, which must be grown from seed, can't tolerate cool, wet weather. A couple of years when we have had a lot of rain in May and the temperature has dropped, I've had to replant my beans late in the month, but those occasions are exceptions.

Squash can be grown either from seed or from plants. As with tomatoes, any squash, eggplant or pepper plants bought at enclosed greenhouses must be hardened off before they go into the ground.

The most cold-intolerant plants are melons and okra. We're better off just waiting until at least mid-May to plant them. Both require warm soil temperatures and warm nights to germinate their seed.

So for the next several weeks, we'll have an eye on the forecast while we get our summer gardens under way.

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