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Unusually chilly nights put brakes on tomatoes

Wind chill expected to drop overnight lows to 32 degrees in Sacramento

Milk jug hot cap over pepper plant
A milk jug with the bottom cut off protects a little pepper plant
from frost damage. (Photo: Debbie Arrington)

Just when you (and I) thought it was safe to plant our tomatoes, we have an extra-late threat of frost – three weeks after our traditional frost date.

Tuesday’s overnight lows are expected to plunge into the mid 30s. With wind chill, it will feel like 32 degrees in Sacramento – and colder in the foothills.

According to the National Weather Service, storm systems later this week will drop snow as low as 3,500 feet on Wednesday night. And we may have more cold, rainy days this week than we had in all of March.

Following days in the 90s just last week, this cold spell will put on the brakes to rapid spring growth – or kill it all together.

So, what’s a poor tomato plant to do? Huddle up with some temporary protection.

Use a plastic milk or water jug as a mini hot house over a new transplant. Cut out the bottom and leave off the cap. This do-it-yourself “hot cap” will protect the transplant from wind chill and frost danger.

Tomato plant
If your tomato plants aren't in the ground yet,
wait at least a few more days until the frost danger
is past. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

Strong overnight winds are expected to drive temperatures down to near freezing almost every night this week. So, keep those protective jugs handy. They can be removed during the day (especially if high temperatures heat back up to the high 70s) or left in place.

In the afternoon, deep water tender plants; that extra moisture keeps the ground warm enough to avoid damage. Also, deep water citrus trees, which are now in bloom.

Another precaution: Make sure to mulch your veggies. Those wood chips or leaves act like a blanket over plant roots, keeping them moist and cozy.

Signs of frost damage are already prevalent in Sacramento gardens, due to some unseasonably cold nights in mid March. That chill killed new sprouts and browned transplants as well as burned tender growth on roses and other shrubs that were pushing out shoots.

When temperatures warm up reliably later this month, trim off the damaged foliage from shrubs. Frost-burned transplants may need to be replaced.

Then, it will be time to plant more tomatoes.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of June 4:

Because of the comfortable weather, it’s not too late to set out tomato and pepper seedlings as well as squash and melon plants. They’ll appreciate this not-too-hot weather. Just remember to water.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes.

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the wee hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

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