February 2022, aka “Fakeout February”, was a great example of how careful farmers have to be to avoid getting suckered by the weather. That’s always been true but it’s becoming even more important as climate change strengthens its grip. The record-setting warm temperatures early in the month tricked fruit and nut trees into bloom, only to be followed by record-setting cold that wiped out the crops.
In the case of trees already planted in the ground, there was no way to avoid the disaster. But the nursery departments of places like Home Depot and True Value Hardware also began putting out displays of tomato and pepper plants in February — much too early to plant them. There’s no downside for a retailer to sell eager homeowners frost-tender plants too early in the season. If the plants do get frozen, it’ll double their sales. Gardeners will blame the weather, or themselves for being too eager.
Farmers get the “spring itch” too when the weather gets warm. That’s why it’s important to keep good records and watch what your neighbors are doing. Most areas of the U.S. have documented “average date of last frost”, and farmers just about everywhere know what that date is for their location. For us in Winters, that date is March 15th. But just 30 miles north of us in the Capay Valley, it’s three weeks later.
Planting after the “last frost” is not a guarantee that a frost won’t occur anyway. But if you plant earlier, you need to assume it’s going to happen for sure.
At Terra Firma, we make sure we have our earliest tomatoes ready by March 1st. Then we take a good look at the weather forecast for the two weeks leading up to the 15th and make a decision about which day to plant. If the outlook is for warm and mild conditions, we’ll plant right on time. But just in case it turns cold again, we set up sprinkler pipes so that we can protect the plants from freezing with water.
If there’s wet weather in the forecast, then we may even plant a day or two early to beat it — stormy weather is rarely cold enough to hurt tomatoes, but it can delay planting by a week or more. A nice gentle rain provides the perfect irrigation, and some of the best tomato fields we’ve ever had have been planted just before an extended period of wet weather. One exception to this rule is thunderstorms, which can cause hail that will crush the little plants.
But if the forecast is for dry, cold and windy weather, we’ll hold off on planting. Dry wind wilts transplants and can even kill them before they have a chance to get good roots established. And cold wind creates perfect conditions for night time freezing. A pattern of frosty nights and windy days is the worst possible setup for a new tomato field. Yet that is exactly the weather we’ve had since March 1st.
There’s little to gain from early planting when the conditions are not right, and lots to lose. Over the years, we’ve learned that planting delicate transplants in marginal conditions is worse than not planting at all. If the transplants are going to be fighting for survival, they are better off staying the greenhouse. We don’t always know when marginal weather is coming, but if it’s predicted and we plant anyway, then we can only blame ourselves.
We had a very cold 28 degrees on Sunday, followed by very windy weather Tuesday and more wind likely tomorrow. So we’ll start planting the early tomato field on Friday, the latest date we have done it in ten years. Even then, we’ll likely be subjecting the plants to a frosty night just after planting, but the following week looks mild with no more cold or wind. Then we’ll be into late March and freezing weather becomes more and more unlikely.
Despite starting 10 days late, I would anticipate that our tomatoes will hit the ground running this year and grow quickly. I expect we’ll have an early harvest this year with the weather pattern of endless dry and warm conditions. Right now it feels like summer is right around the corner.