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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 March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

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

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

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

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

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

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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