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Memorial Day Tomatoes

05/23/02 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) It's a New England tradition to plant your tomatoes around Memorial Day but commentator Henry Homeyer says that may be too soon - especially in New England.

(Homeyer) Every spring it's the same thing: people are amazed by the weather. "It's so hot!" or "It's so cold and wet!" or "Can you believe this drought!" But then, like lemmings, most gardeners rush out to the garden on Memorial Day Weekend to plant their tomatoes, no matter what the weather has been.

I think tomatoes are the royalty of the garden, and treat them accordingly. I start about a dozen different varieties from seed each spring. I coddle and pamper them, and I'm careful not to put them out too soon. Not only do I worry about a late frost, I worry about putting them in ground that is too cold or too wet for their liking. Tomatoes - and their cousins peppers and eggplants - love hot weather. They don't want to sit outside in soil that is still chilly. Some years I don't plant them until mid-June, but they quickly catch up with their unfortunate neighbors down the road who were put outdoors too soon.

Before I plant my tomatoes, I harden them off. Plants that have grown up in a temperature-controlled and wind-protected environment are not ready to go directly into the ground. They need some time to toughen up so that they won't get scalded by the sun, or dehydrated by the wind. I put mine on the northeast side of the house where they get morning sun, and are protected from the wind. I carry them back into the warmth of the house each night. A week of lugging them back and forth pays off handsomely, as they start up faster after the special treatment. The plastic 6-packs used for growing tomato seedlings don't have a lot of space for water, so you need to keep an eye on your plants while they're being hardened off. A big leafy tomato plant can lose a lot of water to transpiration on a hot, windy day outdoors, so be careful.

When planting time comes, I treat my soil to a shovel of compost for every tomato, and about half a cup of organic fertilizer, well mixed in. Tomatoes are most productive if they have large, healthy root systems. One way to encourage good root growth is to plant much of the stalk in the ground. I pinch off the lower leaves so that my seedlings look like little palm trees- they just have foliage on top. I make trenches in the soil so the tomato plants can lie down sideways. As I fill the trench, I bend the stalk so that the top leaves stick up out of the ground. The buried part of the stalk is soon transformed into part of the root system, giving the plant a big boost.

So when should you plant your tomatoes? Never before the soil hits 50 degrees; 60 is even better. A friend of mine suggested this: "Sit down on the ground and have a cup of tea. If you can drink your tea before your bottom gets cold, it's all right to plant."

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, from Cornish Flat, New Hampshire.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist.

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