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Home & Garden: Extending the gardening season

In the past few years, I have been frustrated with my tomatoes, as the fruits do not ripen until well into fall. I have no sunny open area to plant vegetables in so must use a small area on the south side of my house. Last year I grew some tomatoes in containers on my driveway, but did not reap a very large harvest from them. The bed beside my house is raised and I add a large amount of compost each spring to keep it light and fresh. This year I plan to try a few more methods to try to get tomatoes earlier.

While driving through the produce fields in central coastal California I realized how the farmers were able to get three or more crops per year. Mile after mile of fields had long raised rows covered with plastic. In some of the fields, young plants grew through holes in the plastic. Two principles were in use here. After winter, the soils are saturated with water. It takes a lot of heat to warm water so the wet soil can remain cold a long time. Raised beds help drain the soil. The plastic cover increases solar energy, warming up the soil and it keeps some heat in overnight. Clear plastic seems to be the best, although black and red have also been used for this purpose. The soil temperature needs to be 50 degrees at five to six inches deep before you can plant tomatoes. I hope to get my tomatoes planted earlier than usual by covering the soil with plastic.

I usually start tomato seeds 10 to 12 weeks before my planting out day at the end of May. After the seedlings have a few leaves I put them in 1/2 gallon milk cartons and as the stems grow, I keep adding soil until the carton is full. The plants grow to quite a large size. When it is time to plant, I snap off all but a tuft of leaves at the top. I lay the root-ball and most of the stem in a shallow trench so that the roots are in the warmest soil and new roots can form along the buried stem. I tip up the remaining stem and wrap a piece of the carton around it to deter cutworms. I will need to cut the plastic on my soil in order to do this.

When purchasing tomato seeds or seedlings, look for the number of days to maturity on the back of the package or on the plant label. Varieties vary from 60 to 90 days to maturity from the time they are set out in the garden. Tomatoes with the shortest maturity are often smaller than the big slicing varieties. Heirloom varieties seem to have the longest maturity rates. The days to maturity vary with climate and location. I have always liked 'Celebrity' (70 days), but think that I will try Park's Whopper CR improved (65 days) this year.

Air temperature is another important factor along with protection from our ever-present wind. Ready-made 'Wall-O-Water' protectors are available at garden centers. They provide protection from the wind and the sun-warmed water keeps its heat for a while during the night. To set one up, first place a 5-gallon bucket over the plant and then slip the protector around it. Fill the tubes with water and remove the bucket. I plan to try a homemade version. I will fill clear two-liter plastic bottles (minus labels) with water and duct tape them in a ring around the tomato plants. I will leave these in place until the night temperatures are consistently at or above 55 degrees. Hopefully, I can get my plants in the ground two to four weeks before Memorial Day and perhaps harvest them sooner than I have been.

Another method to extend the growing season is with cloches or mini-greenhouses. The original cloches or bell jars were made of glass, but we can use two-liter plastic bottles to cover individual plants. Cut off the bottom three inches of the bottle and place it with the cap over a plant. Remove the cap to water and ventilate. On sunny days, you will have to remove the bottle as the heat could cook the plant. Cover whole rows with tunnels made of fiberglass or landscape fabric such as 'Reemay'. Make hoops with heavy wire (9gauge) and push the ends 12 inches into the ground. Drape the porous plant cover over or bend a fiberglass sheet under the hoops. Pin down the edges of the cloth to keep them from blowing away.

Although this may seem early to be thinking about tomatoes, I know that many of you are purchasing seeds and planning to start them indoors. Perhaps, some of you will consider building a raised bed or two.