I am interested in tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, also Japanese eggplant, and lettuce, for a start. Must be sure that the plants can tolerate our weather because while we have had an exceptionally cold and miserable winter, it will soon be over and then the hot weather will start. Last summer we had a lot of days of over 100 and I lost most of my plants. Is there a best way to handle them when this occurs? Thanks for your help. Jean
Answer: For starters your USDA Hardiness Zones are 8a & 8b. Spring: Jan. 15 – March 1; Fall: Oct. 1 – Dec. 1. This has been an unseasonable winter most everywhere so we all have to adjust slightly. Usually most “cool season” plants in your area can go in the ground late January thru March; your tomatoes, peppers and eggplant transplants should go out around mid-March. If the weather is still cold you might consider a cold-frame to begin the transition out. By then the days should be warming but there is still the chance for cooler nights when the transplants would need protection. You might also consider some of the Season Starter (Wall o’ Water protectors). I’ve used them here in the cold Midwest and they do help protect on those unexpected cold nights. Make sure your soil is enriched by adding lots of compost and some well-balanced garden fertilizer before you plant. If your soil is very compact, consider creating raised beds with well-amended soil. A proper growing medium and good watering practices are the best protection against most environmental changes.
Your cool season plants can be grown in temperatures that are 10-15 degrees cooler and can be grown spring and replanted in the fall. These would include: asparagus, artichoke, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, radish, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnip. These are the ones that would go out between Jan.15 and March 1 and then in October thru December. Many of the leaf crops can actually be seeded out when snow is still on the ground.
Beans, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers should be ready to go out by mid-March and most of these should be about ready for harvest by the time your really hot season begins. If you check each variety you will see that they are labeled with a “days to harvest” number. The shorter this time is the less likely you are to have to deal with the extreme heat. There are also a few varieties of tomatoes that are labeled “heat tolerant,” such as our Arkansas Traveler, so you might consider that, as well. If it would turn hot, then the best thing to do is to make sure the plants stay well watered, often twice a day. You might want to consider a soaker hose and a drip irrigation system that is set up on a timer. That way if you have to be away, the plants don’t wilt and die. Another thing you might want to consider is creating a shade system. Shade cloth is generally used to protect greenhouses from extreme heat build-up but you could create a frame with bamboo or wooden stakes that could be used to shade the plants, something like an arbor with the shade cloth that would block out the hottest midday sun. You could also look at a row cover system that has hoops, but instead of the row cover cloth use the shade cloth that will allow air to escape.
By far the best protection is a good environment, which means well-composted soil and consistent and even watering.
Best of luck with your garden this year. I wish you a bountiful harvest. Karen