Here in the Central Plains, Mother’s Day is traditionally the day backyard gardeners with a gambling streak plant tomatoes.
The rest of us, being of sound memory, resist the urge and wait patiently until Memorial Day weekend (marking the end of what is known as monsoon season in Kansas and Missouri) is behind us. We know the only reward for planting early and exposing tender, heat-loving tomatoes to soggy soil and chilly night temperatures is blossom end rot.
Blossom end rot, the technical term for black, mushy bottoms on tomatoes, is caused by a calcium deficiency. Garden centers sell expensive calcium supplements that may offer some protection, but the easier, free solution is to plant later. Excessive moisture is what causes the calcium to leach, and that is highly unlikely to be a problem come June.
Because even though May and June have similar average rainfall, the average high and low temperatures jump by about 10 degrees each in June, so wet ground dries out faster.
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You definitely won’t beat your early-bird neighbor to the first red tomato by waiting, but your plants will quickly outpace vines stressed by too-early planting.
I learned this the hard way. Last year, in my straw bale garden, reasoning that the bales would shed water better than traditional beds or raised beds, I figured I could plant early if I protected my young tomatoes from cold nights. I created a greenhouse effect using plastic sheeting over trellises.
I had to remove the plastic during the day for watering and to prevent overheating, and put it back on at night. I planted my tomatoes on April 20, and the five weeks of effort netted me ripe tomatoes about five days earlier than usual. The same held true for all the hot-weather favorites that in my book are the only crops worth messing with in our climate: green beans, squash, pumpkins, watermelon, cantaloupe, eggplant, cucumbers and okra.
It’s very freeing to eliminate extra work once you discover it’s a waste of time.
So this weekend you’ll find me watering and fertilizing my straw bales in preparation for planting two weeks from now. The water and fertilizer cause the straw inside to break down into a sterile, weed-free growing medium. Do not, under any circumstances, add soil or manure to the bales, because that introduces the weeds you are trying to avoid.
Last year many readers asked why they should grow tomatoes in straw bales when they have always had good luck in a traditional or a raised bed. My answer: no reason under the sun. Stick with what works.
I only grow in straw bales because my yard has about one inch of heavy clay topsoil on top of rock. Zebulon Pike did not call this area the Flint Hills for nothing.
If you have soil beds, you can prep your beds now and plant later: Dig in compost, manure or shredded leaves. If you want, you can also lay black plastic over the bed for a couple of weeks to warm the soil and kill weeds.
If you must put out your tomatoes this weekend, take a tip from my country neighbors and put a plastic milk jug with the bottom cut off over each; leave the cap on, but cut off the top of the handle and run a stake into the ground to keep the jug in place. (Also see our KC Gardens blog for tips from extension agents).
The most important preparation for a successful gardening season is often overlooked by gardening books and TV shows: comfort planning.
Gardening in the heat of July will be infinitely more pleasurable — and successful because you’ll stick with it — if you pack for it like you were going to the beach.
I keep everything I might need in the way of tools, sun protection and rest/hydration together in a corner of the sun porch. Before I start any garden chore, I apply sunscreen, put on a wide-brimmed hat and gardening clogs, and set up base camp: a comfortable folding chair and an insulated dispenser filled with ice water or ice tea, or a cooler full of ice and bottled beverages. Put the chair in the shade if possible.
Nothing spoils a nice day in the garden like sunburn or heat stroke. A waiting chair and refreshments will go a long way to prevent overexertion.
Next I drag a shovel, rake and the hose (or a watering can) to where I’m working, as well as a basket containing small hand tools, twine, markers and a wheelbarrow or 5-gallon bucket for garden debris.
I might not end up using all those things, but having them within reach eliminates tedious and time-killing trips back and forth to the garage.
I often garden in a kitchen apron: It keeps some dirt off my clothes, and the pockets are like having an extra hand.
The last thing I try to always keep with me is a small pair of binoculars. When I sit down to catch my breath and rehydrate with an icy Mexican Fresca (grapefruit soda with real sugar, sold at some Mexican grocers in Kansas City), watching songbirds cavort in nearby trees deepens my relaxation.
I’m happy that this year, the next two weeks will bring more bird-watching and less fussing over vulnerable tomatoes.