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When to start summer seeds indoors? A reassessment

Tomato seed packets are marked with the date the seeds were started each year — all in February. Tomato seeds generally are good for three years if they are stored properly. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)
Those old familiar dates need some rethinking

My tomato and pepper seed packets tell the tale: I usually start planting indoors the first week of February, adding to the starts through the third week of the month as time and supply allow.

Figure six to 10 days to germinate, then several weeks indoors. I slowly move the little plants to six-packs and then outside to a sheltered spot, finally choosing the plants that will win places in the garden and giving them their own 1-gallon pots. This all culminates in Tomato Planting Day right around April 28, which happens to be "Farmer Fred" Hoffman's designated date, and his birthday as well.

In theory, the plants then have all the rest of the spring to get established, finally producing ripe fruit in July.

Ah, but climate change is wreaking havoc with my comfortable schedule. In each of the past four years, there has been a nasty hot spell in June. My calendars from 2015 through 2018 each have HOT written across at least three consecutive days in June; in 2017 it was seven straight days, from June 17 to 23. In 2015, it hit 105 degrees on June 8.

For a tomato grower, that means your precious plants shut down production, as a protective measure, just when they should be setting their first fruit. The yellow blossoms just sit there, or even fall off. The bees aren't out either, goodness knows.

One year might be a fluke, but four years of this? I think it’s time to reassess the schedule.

If I kick everything back three weeks, my starts should begin around Jan. 13, which is Sunday! I could plant most of the tomato garden around April 7 or even March 31. Since the latest average frost date for Sacramento is March 23 or so, I’d escape that, but it still might be cold. Or wet.

It’s a gamble, but those four years of calendars don’t lie: It’s getting warmer earlier.

This is why I could never be a farmer.

Note: Debbie and I will be writing several posts on seeds. seed catalogs
and seed starting. Let us know what your plans are for the coming season.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist for week of April 7

The warm wave coming this week will shift weeds into overdrive. Get to work!

* Weed, weed, weed! Whack them before they flower.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* 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.

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

* Transplant lettuce and cabbage seedlings.

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