Homeyer: Too early to transplant

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(HOST) Commentator Henry Homeyer says that this is the time of year when gardeners have to try very hard – to resist temptation.  

(HOMEYER)  With Memorial Day weekend just around the corner, many gardeners are anxious to plant their tomatoes, peppers and cukes. Not me.

I start most warm-weather plants from seed in the house, starting as early as March for my peppers or as late as mid-May for cucumbers and squash. I’ve tended and watered baby tomatoes with as much care as I might give baby chicks. I’ve kept them warm and provided bright lights to help them along. I’ve talked to them and stroked their leaves to encourage strong stem growth. No way am I going to put them outside when there is still a chance of frost. Call me an overprotective Dad if you will, but I plan on keeping my seedlings indoors a little longer.

Here is what I’ve observed: warm weather crops really like warm weather. We’ll still see some cold nights, even if we don’t get frost. The soil is still cool, so my tomatoes won’t do much growing. I think keeping them in their pots for an extra week or two will pay off later.

Recently I transplanted many of my tomatoes into 4-inch pots. I used a 50-50 mix of potting soil and compost, with a little organic fertilizer mixed in. It’s true that tomatoes will languish if their roots get snarled up in those little compartments offered by plastic 6-packs. So I let mine have some more root space, and they will reward me, I think, when I finally put them in the ground.

I spend a little energy each day lugging my tomatoes and peppers in and out of the house. During the day I want them outside, getting used to the sunshine and breezes. But if a heavy rain is forecast, I don’t want them beaten down. And I let them sleep where it’s warm. At planting time – which for me will be around June 10 – I’ll pinch off the lower branches of my tomatoes, making them look like tiny palm trees. I’ll plant them sideways, with the long stems in the ground and the top turned up just above the soil line. The buried stems will turn into roots, promoting great top growth later on.

It is tempting to give vegetable seedlings lots of fertilizer, but most don’t need too much if you’ve enriched the soil well with compost. Too much nitrogen, especially from chemical fertilizers, promotes fast green growth, but not necessarily more fruit. And fast growth can be weaker, and more attractive to bugs. So I use a little organic fertilizer, but not much.  If I overdue it my tomato plants could grow taller than I am.

So if you must plant on Memorial Day, plant seeds – beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach and peas are all good candidates. You won’t gain much by planting tomato or pumpkin plants outdoors. They want to cuddle up by the woodstove at night a little longer – or at least mine do.

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