If you’re like many gardeners, you start perusing seed catalogs and dreaming of garden-grown tomatoes and peppers in early February or before. In fact, long before it’s safe to plant these frost-tender vegetables. Unless, of course, you trick Mother Nature by manipulating growing conditions.
Through a few simple gardening strategies, you can safely plant tomatoes and peppers several weeks before the last expected frost. This early start is especially helpful if you live in an area with short growing seasons, where tomatoes may not ripen before the first fall frost.
1. Warm the Soil:
Using Raised Beds for Early Planting
One of the simplest ways to warm up the vegetable garden is through the use of raised beds. Raised beds can be as simple as dirt mounded above the surrounding soil, or for an attractive, permanent bed, build raised beds from rot-resistant cedar or wood plastic composites. Because a raised bed sits above ground, water drains more quickly and the soil warms up sooner. With proper frost protection, you can plant tomatoes and peppers as much as six weeks earlier than you would in a traditional garden.
Soil tips for raised beds
When making raised beds, wait until the soil is dry. If you till wet soil, you’ll damage the soil structure and have hard, unworkable clods of earth.
One of the benefits of raised beds is that you can easily amend or replace poor garden soil. Replace poor soil with a high-quality top soil, or amend average soil with 3 to 4 inches of compost or manure. Till the amendments in thoroughly and allow the bed to rest for a few days to dry.
Compare the soil in the raised bed to the surrounding soil. When properly prepared, the soil in raised beds is soft and warm, with a rich, earthy smell and the texture of chocolate cake.
Make raised beds 3 feet wide or smaller so you can easily access them without stepping in the bed, which compacts the soil. The beds can be as long as you wish, although most beds are between 6 and 8 feet long.
2. Cold Frames and Hot Beds for Early Planting:
Using Plastic to Warm Soil and Frost Protection
Raised beds can raise the soil temperature by 10 to 20 degrees, compared to surrounding soil, but they won’t protect tomato and vegetable plants from frost. Plant the tomatoes and peppers on a balmy, late winter day and give them some frost protection.
Wall-O-Water plastic, water-filled cloches are a bit messy to install, but they provide protection for early tomatoes and peppers with little effort. Here’s how they work: the plastic tent contains several hollow tunnels. Place the cloche over a young tomato plant and fill the tunnels with water. The sun warms the water, creating a miniature greenhouse effect and protecting young tomatoes and peppers from all but the most severe cold weather. Because tomatoes and peppers are native to warm, tropical areas, they thrive in these cloches. Remove the cloches when warm weather arrives, or when the plants begin producing flowers.
Plastic cloches offer the best protection from frost, but they become prohibitively expensive if you have a large garden with many tomato and pepper plants. Another option is to install hoop tunnels or floating row covers over a raised bed. Make hoop tunnels with bent PVC pipe secured to the raised bed with galvanized tube straps. Cover the pipe with sheets of plastic to create a long, low tunnel that protects tomatoes and peppers from frost and wind.
Try a Floating Row Crop Cover Frost Blanket. Floating row covers are agricultural fabrics that are laid directly on top of the tomato and pepper plants. The covers allow sun and water to permeate, but protect plants from frost and keep the soil 10 degrees warmer. Row covers trap heat too to prevent frost. Remove both hoop tunnels and floating row covers when the plants begin producing flowers so bees can pollinate them.
Want to learn more about winter preparation for growing peppers and tomatoes?
Raised Bed Gardens – University of Minnesota Extension
Eat From the Garden All Year – Oregon State University Extension
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CC flickr photo by TEDxManhattan
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