Garden Calendar: Water teepees provide early start for tomatoes

Tom Groene, who lives northwest of Lawrence with his wife, Gaye, uses a water teepee to help grow tomatoes in cold weather. Water teepees to protect plants from cold temperatures and wind in late April and early May.

The first tomato of summer: It’s the one gardeners and foodies long for as days get warmer, gardens flourish with plant growth, and farmers markets pick up steam. Want that first tomato a little earlier? Try using a device called a water teepee to protect plants from cold temperatures and wind in late April and early May.

Tom and Gaye Groene, who garden at their home northwest of Lawrence, say they have been using water teepees for the last several years to get earlier tomatoes.

“I think we had ripe tomatoes the first part of June last year,” says Gaye, although in a typical year it is mid-June before they start picking the fruit.

A water teepee is a clear plastic device with a number of vertical tubes. When the tubes are filled with water, the device sits about 18 inches tall in the shape of a teepee. Sunlight warms the water in the tubes, and the heat radiates to the air in the center of the teepee and the soil below.

The Groenes set their water teepees 1-2 weeks before they are ready to transplant tomato plants into the garden. Gaye notes that they only do a few plants this way — to get the early tomatoes.

“We make sure it is really time to plant before we put in the rest of our crop,” she adds. In the Lawrence area, the frost-free date is May 2, and many gardeners wait until after that date to avoid risk of cold-temperature injury to their tomato plants.

Setting the teepees up is just a matter of filling the tubes and providing some sort of support to keep the teepee from blowing over in the wind. The Groenes have used old tool handles, but an electric fence post or something similar works just as well when inserted into the teepee on the side opposite the prevailing wind.

Spacing is a matter of personal preference. Tom has built a trickle irrigation system that will be laid out later in the season, so he and Gaye carefully measure off tomato placement to fit with that system. Gardeners who plan to use stakes or cages for their tomatoes should consider that in placing the teepees.

“We also try to get something with a maturity date that is as early as possible,” Gaye notes. This information can be found on the plant label as “days to harvest” and is a count of the days from planting seeds to picking fruit.

The Groenes try new things most years based on this information. This year, they are planting “Mr. Stripey,” an heirloom tomato variety with a maturity date that is listed as 56 days, and “Sun Sugar,” a cherry-type tomato with sweet yellow fruit and a maturity date of 62-67 days.

To plant the tomatoes, lift the water teepee from the post, plant in the center of the circle, and put the teepee back in place around the plant.

Teepees can be removed once danger of frost has passed. Occasionally, Tom notes, plants grow out the top of the teepee before this occurs. In those instances, the exposed part of the plant can be damaged, but is usually insignificant.

The Groenes also grow onions, lettuce, cucumbers, basil, cilantro, peppers and many other veggies. Recently they have added a few strawberry and blueberry plants.

“I want the grandkids to know where these things come from,” Gaye says.

Tom says that wildlife is even more of a challenge than Kansas weather.

“Part of the problem with being a gardener out here is competing with the deer and woodchucks and squirrels,” he says.