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Is it too early to plant tomatoes?

Wait until April before putting tender summer transplants in the ground

They're out there in the nurseries, and they're enticing, but ... if you buy tomato plants this size now, don't put them in the ground just yet.

They're out there in the nurseries, and they're enticing, but ... if you buy tomato plants this size now, don't put them in the ground just yet. Kathy Morrison

This is spring fever, Sacramento-style. As soon as afternoons warm into the 70s, gardeners rush to the nearest nursery to buy their favorite seedlings – tomatoes!

That weekend has arrived, with both Saturday and Sunday comfortably in the 70s (and a lot less windy).

It’s OK to buy tomato seedlings now; just don’t plant them in the ground yet.

According to the National Weather Service, Sacramento will enjoy high temperatures in the mid 70s through the first official day of spring Tuesday, March 19. Later in the week, this warm wave will cool back into the 60s – with the possibility of more rain next weekend.

And there’s the rub: It feels warm but not warm enough. Overnight lows are chilly, too, dipping each night to 50 degrees or colder. Those conditions keep soil temperatures on the cool side.

That’s the real issue: Soil temperature – not air temperature – is key to early tomato success. Tomato roots need soil temperatures above 60 degrees, preferably 65 to 70, say master gardeners and university research. Without warm soil (and cozy roots), tomato transplants just sit there and sulk.

Planting in too-cold soil actually can hamper the plant for its entire life, say the experts.

Friday’s local soil temperature: 54.4 degrees.

Judging by the long-range weather forecast, we likely won’t see soil temperatures consistently above 60 degrees for at least two more weeks; 65 and up, four weeks or more.

After Wednesday, only one more day in March is predicted to be over 70 degrees. In that same time period, the Sacramento forecast calls for six days of rain. That’s actually normal for March in Sacramento.

So, wait on tomato planting – at least in the ground.

Instead, transplant tomato seedlings into 1-gallon black plastic pots with a good planting mix. The plastic absorbs heat and warms the soil inside the pots. That gives the seedlings a valuable head start and lets them form healthy root balls before going into the ground.

In late April, transplant the larger tomato plants – root ball and all – into the garden. They’ll be healthier and grow faster than vines transplanted directly into the ground in March.


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Garden Checklist for week of April 21

This week there’s plenty to keep gardeners busy. With no rain in the immediate forecast, remember to irrigate any new transplants.

* Weed, weed, weed! Get them before they flower and go to seed.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden is really hungry. Feed shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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