It was 36F when I got up yesterday morning, close though not actually freezing, but last night, we had a definite frost. And I have ten tomato plants that I started from see already stuck in the garden.
I never seem to time it right – some years, I’m way early, some years way late starting my tomatoes. I like to push the season — having your own tomatoes by 4th of July is an undeclared but fierce competition over here in the upper Eastern Shore’s farm country. But the increasingly unpredictable seasons have made the calculation about when you start seeds and when you can actually put plants in the ground more complicated. Normally, our last frost date here is about April 15 or so. Clearly, we’re in a new normal, hard enough for gardeners, but the farmers and the CSA growers, who plant out in the fields, have it way harder; with our smaller scale, gardeners can do all kinds of things to protect our tender plants even if we’ve miscalculated the timing or if the season’s unkind. To help deal with the vagaries of climate change, ingenious gardeners and commercial enterprises have developed a host of strategies to cope. Like Walls o’ Water (a trademark, though I think there are similar kinds of things now with different names).
My tomato plants were desperate to get into the ground, but I knew — thank you Marty Bass — that we were potentially in line for a frost on Monday, last night and tomorrow. So, while the soil thermometer indicated that the soil was borderline-OK to plant some of my overgrown Solanaceae babies, the air temps were iffy. So, bit by bit over several days, my husband cleared some beds (bless his heart) and I planted ten tomatoes — Big Mama, Supersauce, Big Rainbow, Renee’s Mandarin, Sungold, Green Envy, grape, Sunchocula, Gold Medal and Super Beefsteak — inside Walls o’ Water.
Walls o’ Water are clever little season-extenders (actually more like season-precursors since you use them at the beginning not the end of the season). They’re translucent plastic cuffs about 15 inches tall, ringed with vertical channels that you fill with water. Once filled and in place around a plant, they absorb the sun’s warmth and retain enough of it overnight to protect against nights like the past two. They can be a bit awkward to deal with when you’re filling the channels and then lifting them into place, but they work well once installed. To make filling and moving them easier, I put an empty Wall o’ Water around an empty 5-gallon bucket, which acts as a stiffener, then fill each channel with the hose. Once filled, it’s easy to lift the filled wall, still ringing the bucket, into a garden cart and haul it out to the garden. However, lifting it into place over the planted tomato plant is a little tricky (two sets of hands help – again, thanks, Sweetheart). Once the Walls o’ Water were in place, I put metal cages over the whole rig, which also helps to keep everything in place when the wind’s blowing 40 as it was the other night. Spent yesterday evening weeding the tiny spinach, carrots, and radishes as well as the space around the tomatoes; everything was still thriving. So far so good. Most of them have about six inches of top sticking out of the plastic protections, o we’ll see as the day wears on whether last night was too much for their bare little arms. If so, I’ll clip off the frost-burnt bits and keep going. Tomatoes can be amazingly resilient if you give them a little encouragement.
More tender plants will go in next week when the weather (presumably) settles down some. Can’t wait to bring in the first tomatoes in town!