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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 March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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