Planting traditions

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(HOST) New England gardeners like to have most of the garden planted by Memorial Day, but commentator Henry Homeyer says it’s not a hard and fast deadline – and for good reason.

(HOMEYER) Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the time to plant the garden. Vermonters by the thousands brave the black flies, fire up the rototiller and get their tomatoes in the ground. Not me.

I started 60 tomatoes by seed in April, and I’m tired of pampering them indoors. I’d love to see them be fully independent. But I’ll wait a little longer. Even if we don’t have a frost, the ground is still pretty wet and chilly for a tomato that would rather be growing in Mexico. My tomatoes will be happier indoors until the ground reaches 50 degrees and nighttime temperatures are close to that, too.

All young plants started indoors or in a greenhouse – both flowers and vegetables – need to be hardened off before moving to the garden. This means putting them outside where they’ll just get morning sun- shine and where they’re protected from strong drying winds. The north side of the house is usually ideal.

When you purchase plants, ask if they’ve been hardened off. You wouldn’t spend the first hot sunny day of summer in the garden without a shirt on. Your plants wouldn’t like it either – they can get sunburned, too. This week, I’ve been carrying trays of plants outdoors every morn- ing and bringing them in each night or if hard rain is forecast. A week of hardening off is fine.

I like to plant new seedlings in the late afternoon or early evening. That way they can relax and let their rootlets explore new territory overnight before facing the hot sun. Or I’ll plant in the morning if the day will be cloudy or rainy.

If you haven’t purchased your tomato plants yet, here’s a suggestion: don’t select 6-packs with the biggest plants. Never pick those that are already in blossom or in fruit. Big plants in small containers probably have used up all the soil nutrients and have a tight mass of roots. Smaller plants will catch up and surpass the big ones because they haven’t been stressed out as much.

Before planting, I submerge the rootball in a bucket of water and wait until it stops bubbling. Then I try to untangle the roots, teasing them out with a hand tool or a finger. Failure to do that may result in roots that stay in a tight mass for weeks. I want my plants to send out their roots to explore their new neighborhood, getting moisture and nutrients.

I can’t wait for my first bite of a juicy red homegrown tomato. For now, however, I’m content to have planted cold-hardy things like broccoli, carrots, beets and greens. When things really warm up, then I’ll plant my warm weather plants – vine crops, peppers and, of course, the queen of the garden, my tomatoes.

Waiting will just make them all that much more wonderful.

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

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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