Good things grow for those who wait

by | Feb 1, 2018 | Journey with Jill in the Garden

I stepped down from the truck’s passenger side onto the parking lot at Lowe’s. Unseasonably warm February air greeted me, stoking my longing for spring.
But whatever we had come for flitted from my mind the instant I saw the vibrant green signs. I mumbled something to my husband about meeting him later, though I might have already been too many steps ahead for him to hear me. Most likely he followed the direction of my near-gallop and knew. He’s used to my giddiness each spring when I start seeing early vegetable plants on display at the local garden centers.
While browsing the cool weather crops — spinach, lettuce, and a variety of greens, typical for late winter — I halted when another vegetable plant caught my eye.
Tomatoes? In February?
I’m sure this sight wouldn’t come as a shock to most people, but for me, a wet-behind-the-ears gardener, I was perplexed. I knew tomatoes couldn’t survive the cold temperatures that, despite our current warm spell, would surely return before spring established a foothold.
A few weeks later I attended my favorite gardening event of the season — the Arkansas Flower and Garden Show. Seated in a meeting room, I listened as Janet Carson, an extension horticulture specialist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, shared basics of gardening for beginners.
I found she shared my thoughts on summer crops popping up at garden centers before they could be planted in the home garden.
Many aspiring gardeners think if a plant shows up in their local garden center it must be time to set it out in the garden. They buy the tomato transplant, put it in their garden, and a cold snap kills it. They don’t blame the store that sold it, they blame themselves. Many give up and assume they’re just not cut out to grow a garden.
I still don’t fully understand why summer crops begin decorating the shelves of garden centers in February and even into early March. Perhaps more people baby their new transplants in greenhouse environments than I realize. Or maybe some people plant in containers and keep the tomatoes inside on cold nights.
But for the rest of us, it’s helpful to understand when we can plant those beautiful tomato plants in our gardens. These are the guidelines I follow:
Wait until the danger of frost has passed. Frosts can kill tomato plants, especially young, newly transplanted ones. For the River Valley area, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, our last frost has usually passed by April 1st. However, as with any “average” number, frosts can occur a couple of weeks after that date.
Wait until the nighttime temperatures consistently stay in the 50s or above. While nighttime temperatures in the 40s won’t kill tomatoes, the plants will not thrive in this cool environment. Another reason this is a good guideline: when the lows consistently stay in the 50s, daytime temperatures most likely rise to the 70s, which is an ideal environment for the young plants’ growth.
Wait until the ground can be worked. My garden consists of a high concentration of heavy clay soil. Especially in wet spring weather, this soil remains soggy until warm daytime temperatures, spring winds, and sunny days can dry it out. All plants, including tomatoes, will take longer to adjust to a transplant if their soil is waterlogged.
All gardens are different, and each spring brings unique growing conditions. In recent years our last spring frost has swung from mid-March to early May, for example.
For the best success in growing tomatoes, when in doubt, wait.
I know it’s tempting to want to get a jump-start on the season, especially when those warm spells increase in frequency. But living in Arkansas gives us the flexibility of a long growing season. Even if you don’t get your tomatoes in the ground until May, you can still harvest a bumper crop. Many times, in fact, the later-planted tomatoes end up surpassing the early ones since the the more hospitable planting environment spurs faster growth.
If you see tantalizing summer vegetable plants like tomatoes in your garden center this month, admire them and smell their fragrance. Dream of your summer garden. And go back and purchase a few… in a month or two.
The Arkansas Flower and Garden Show will be held on March 2-4, 2018 at the State Fairgrounds in Little Rock. Get more information at

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