Premature tomato buying is a recipe for failure

By 
Erin Schane

Gardeners, step away from the tomatoes.

Some plants, unfortunately, seem to be getting the same treatment that Christmas decorations do — in stores way before anyone needs them.

Of course, there are some plants that are fine to buy now, including trees, shrubs and hardy perennials. Some cold-tolerant annuals and vegetables, like pansies, violas and cabbage, are well suited to our still-chilly spring temperatures as well. But there are some plants that have no business being sold in our area right now.

I consider tomatoes to be the poster child for plants that shouldn’t be sold now, and yet I found an entire rack of them at a garden center over the weekend. Sure, there was a sign reminding gardeners to “protect from frost,” but that doesn’t begin to cover the issues with buying tomatoes now.

First off, we’re more than a month away from being able to plant tomatoes here. Tomatoes prefer a minimum soil temperature of about 65 degrees (you can probably push it to 60) at the level their roots will grow.

That’s usually not until the very end of May and often not until June. Tomatoes planted in cool soil will sulk, and when the soil does warm up they’ll be slow to catch up.

In fact, you’re almost always better off to plant smaller tomato plants in June than you are to plant a larger plant in mid-May. The small plants will quickly outgrow the ones planted first simply because it never was put on pause by cool temperatures.

Leaves will also be affected by cold temperatures even before you plant a tomato in the garden. And they will quickly outgrow those little pots you buy them in even if you are able to keep them warm and happy.

You’ll have to repot them, fertilize them and keep them in bright light. (That means under a grow light inside or in natural light outside. A window is unlikely to be enough). All of which seems like a lot of work when you can just wait and buy tomatoes a month later.

So which came first, the tomato buyer or the tomato seller? I know better than most that it can be difficult to wait to plant a garden you’ve been planning all winter, so it wouldn’t surprise me if area garden centers have customers looking for tomatoes. Especially after last year’s gardening rush, I assume there are gardeners worried that if they don’t buy a plant now they won’t be able to find it later.

But garden centers that want their customers to be successful, and I’m certain they all do, should explain to those gardeners that it’s just too cold to be selling tomatoes now. If people see plants for sale they assume it’s safe to buy them.

If someone buys Christmas lights the day after Halloween, nothing too bad will happen, other than potentially having a neighbor turn on their light display while the Thanksgiving turkey is still walking. But if you buy tomatoes too early, the odds are you’ll be out the money you spent and you won’t have any tomatoes to show for it.

So if you see tomatoes at garden centers over the next couple weeks, just avert your eyes and keep walking.

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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