Tomatoes in garden

Planting tomatoes early is usually a good idea to avoid the crop succumbing to the heat of summer. But you want to try to avoid a freeze for the plants.

March is one of the most important and busy months in the Central Texas garden. Spring is making its way back to our state, sometimes slowly and tentatively, but making progress, nevertheless.

One of the major challenges of spring garden planning is that it can be warm and balmy one week, and icy and cold the next. You never know for sure what to expect. Do you plant your tomatoes near the first of the month and risk a late-season freeze, or wait until it is almost April?

Will your plants have the benefit of the warm sunshine, or will ice coat their leaves after you set them out? It is impossible to know, so let me give you some suggestions.

Early planting is very important where tomatoes are concerned. If you wait too long to plant, hoping to miss a late freeze, the heat of summer will surely catch up with your crop and cut down on the quality and quantity of your harvest.

Earlier in the season, there are fewer insects to plague your tomatoes, and it is likely that rain will help accelerate the development of large, delicious fruit (yes, tomatoes produce fruits). A late frost, however, is likely to set your tomatoes back so much that they will never recover.

Even if they do not die, stunted growth will surely follow a tomato that has suffered a freeze. There are several solutions to this problem.

First, you can protect your plants from a freeze with floating row cover that is made to give your plants several degrees of protection from frost.

Check the brand and type of row cover to make sure it is made to do this — some just protect against insect damage. Cover the transplants when you put them out and weigh down the edges of the row cover with rocks or bricks to keep them from blowing away.

These protective covers work in a different way than a person’s jacket works to keep the body warm. Humans have body heat and the jacket keeps it inside next to the body.

Plants don’t have internal heat. The warmth comes from the soil below the plant. When you surround the plant with row cover or even milk cartons or coffee cans, you are helping trap the heat of the surrounding soil so the plant can remain warmer than the ambient air temperature.

Just Add Water

Another solution is to use water to trap heat for your plants. There is a device, called Wall o’ Water, that you put around your tomato transplants when you plant them. They have plastic rings that you fill with water surrounding the plants. During the day, these rings of water heat up, and at night they release heat to keep the tomato plants warmer. I have seen these in use and they work very well.

If you do not want to spend the money to buy these devices, then fill several plastic water cartons with water and surround your plants with them. It will help keep the warmth in if you wrap plastic around the cartons to enclose the tomato plants. Whatever you use, it will need to be clear or at least translucent to let in light.

I have known tomato enthusiasts who keep their tomatoes in pots until warm weather is here to stay. They move the plants out into full sun during the day and inside at night.

If you don’t have kids or pets and do have a strong back, this might work well for you. As your plants get bigger and bigger, you can transplant them to a larger pot to keep them growing strongly. When all danger of frost is gone, you can transplant them out into the garden.

Amend the Soil

For all your new plants that you will be adding to your garden this year, be sure to amend the soil with plenty of compost. Once the soil begins to be rather warm late this spring, cover any bare soil with 3 or more inches of mulch to hold in moisture, prevent diseases, and moderate temperatures around your vegetables and flowers. Your plants will perform well and you will spend much less time weeding.

Another important thing to remember this time of the year for tomatoes, other vegetables and flowers is to apply water correctly. Water your plants deeply once a week (or a little more frequently in hot weather). Light sprays of overhead watering are disease-promoting and wasteful.

Deep Watering

We have talked primarily about tomatoes, but this applies equally to all your garden plants. Deep watering is very important. The soil should stay feeling slightly moist, never soggy. If it rains, make sure the soil moisture was replenished at least an inch deep. Two inches is better. If you poke your finger into the soil and find that it is dry an inch down, add more water.

Soaker hoses and other types of watering systems that let water gently seep into the soil over a period of an hour or more are the most beneficial to your plants. These types of hoses can be installed and covered with mulch to help prevent evaporation.

Leaves should never be watered — just the roots. Watering the leaves is watering fungi growing there — not something you want to encourage. It also splashes soil pathogens onto the leaves. Soaker hoses and mulch can go a long way to keep these things from harming your plants.

A little effort now can get you going in your goal of a healthy vegetable garden and a beautiful display of flowers this year. Now is the perfect time of the year to take these steps.

Melody Fitzgerald is a McLennan County Master Gardener who has spent more than 35 years facing the challenges of Central Texas gardening.