Howdy fellow Central Texas gardeners!
If you're like us, and already have your tomatoes in the ground (and many of you do!), be sure to make your weather app or weather channel, your gardening ally! Many plants cannot handle a frost, but are also favored for early planting for maximum production.
What's all the fuss? You may be asking yourself, "why go to so much trouble to have to protect these plants, why not just wait until it's warmer?" Here's the skinny:
Although tomatoes, technically a short-lived tropical perennial, love the heat, some do have their limitations. Once temperatures reach 95 degrees F, fruit set on particular tomatoes, especially beefsteak varieties, is greatly reduced. By planting them in February, and keeping them warm-ish, you are potentially a month or two ahead of typical extreme heat set, here in Central Texas.
We put summer squash in this same category, but for an entirely different reason. Squash, being a descendent of a Central American cucurbit, thrive in the heat. But as many of you Central Texas gardeners have discovered, so do the SVB or squash vine borers, a moth whose larvae absolutely decimates squash plants. Healthy squash one day and gone the next? Likely you've been visited by the dreaded SVB.
In our experience, populations of the SVB generally do not become fully activated until May and sometimes in to June. This essentially gives the home gardener several months to plant, grow, and harvest squash before the larvae begin to awaken. Hence, plant your summer squash now, to get ahead of these pests.
What do you need to do to protect your tomatoes from frost? Firstly, do not panic!.. You got this!
Are they in pots? Bring them inside...DONE!
Are they in the ground? Ok, no problem! It can be as simple as taking another pot, bowl, bucket, or container of some sort, and turning it over to cover each plant. Weight it down, if it is too light to stay on it's own. Be sure there's plenty of room for the height of the plant.
Another quick and easy DIY plant cover trick, is to take a tomato cage or similar, and stick it in the ground around your new transplant. Get a large garbage bag or old sheet, and cover the cage with your covering of choice. You can weigh the sheet/bag at the bottom (where the ground meets your covering) with bricks, wood, whatever you may have. Sure you could just throw a whole sheet on your garden and cross your fingers, but a stitch in time saves nine, as they say ;)
One important step, do NOT forget to remove the plant covering, as soon as temps move above 45 degrees F. This could of course call for a few days of removing and replacing the covers, between night and day, but you'll find it very worth it once you get your tomato production yields. As a general rule, we try to keep our tomato starts above 40 degrees F.
If you have multiple plants, and are looking to cover a large space containing them, building a simple row cover with pvc, rebar (optional) and 4 mil plastic, is a cheap way to get a jump on the season. This is something that can remain in tact around your garden bed, and easily be removed and replaced, as temps fluctuate daily. You will see a picture in this blog post, of just such a structure. This particular "row cover" or "hoop house", was built by our son when he was 15 yo. If he can do it, so can you! The photo is what your hoop house might look like, without it's plastic cover.
Don't be afraid to water the day of an impending "cold snap". Watering your plants will actually make the ground warmer, and protect the roots. Adding mulch around these plants, will also add an extra layer of protection, and can help with sustaining moisture in the long run.
These are just a few simple steps that can be taken to get the best out of your spring gardening, especially if planning ahead. Dealing with frost and pests, is all a part of the gardening adventure. Thanks for trusting us to be on this journey with you!
Go forth and garden!
Flint and Jay Beard