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Man in Overalls - When to Plant Tomatoes

"Plant 'em in the spring. Eat 'em the summer. All winter without 'em's a culinary bummer," as John Denver sings in "Home Grown Tomatoes." 

So, just when should you plant* your homegrown tomatoes? Or, more generally, when should you plant your spring food garden? (For an abbreviated version of this post revised & published in Edible Northeast Florida, click here.)

Since tomatoes along with other spring favorites like squash, corn, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, and the like are "frost sensitive" (in other words, they'll die if it freezes), it's all about the "last frost date" for your area. Unless you're a weather savant and remember the last freeze for the past twenty years, you'll have to do some investigating.
You could look up your Plant Hardiness Zone on this cool "interactive" map from the USDA, and you'd learn that Jacksonville is in zone 9a, Tallahassee is in 8b, and Atlanta is just barely in zone 8a, near the edge of 7b. Okay, sounds interesting... maybe important? But what does all that mean?

Honestly, the only things I really take from the Plant Hardiness Zone Map is twofold: 1)generally, the further south you are, the warmer climate you're in, the bigger the number, and 2)the growing season for Houston is likely to be relatively similar to that of Jacksonville. Cool. But again, when should you plant your tomatoes?

On a helpful note, if you google last frost date by plant hardiness zone, some tables pop up that will narrow things down a bit for you. For example, it says that Jacksonville, in zone 9a, has an average last frost date sometime between January 30th and February 28th. Better, but you're still dealing with a full month of error.

Imagine if someone invited you for dinner. "Yes, would love to," you say. "When?" you ask, and they respond, "Oh, sometime in February. Are you free?" So you ask, "Um... well... which day?" To which they reply, "Oh, sometime between January 30 & Feb 28th."  ... Not all that helpful.
So what do you do?

For those of y'all in Jacksonville & Tallahassee (and generally for other places in zones 9a and 8b, respectively), I, of course, know the answer (or, at least, an answer), and I'll tell you in just a minute. However, the better long-term solution is to ask the gardeners in your family, on your block, in the community garden, on your garden club facebook group page. Ask them, "When should I plant my tomatoes?" Or, "When are you planting your spring garden?"

Don't ask just one person. Ask several. Use this simple question to weave yourself into a gardening network of peer support, so you've got folks with whom to learn and swap other garden info in the future.

Having relocated a couple years ago from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, this is exactly what I did upon arrival. And, as you will likely encounter, I heard a lot of conflicting dates and anecdotes like these: "My uncle always used to plant his potatoes before Valentines Day... but as for tomatoes, I usually plant them sometime near the beginning of March." And, "Well, last year we had an odd ball freeze March 15th! So, I don't even know any more." You'll also hear the old-timers caution things like, "Planting before Good Friday is a good way to get your crops froze" and advise you to check the almanac. My grandmother was always telling me that.
But eventually, after you hear from several folks, you'll have a ballpark last frost/spring planting date. You might even encounter someone who speaks definitively like this:
  • If you're in Jacksonville, you're good to go after March 1st.
  • If you're in Tallahassee, you're good to go after March 15th.
Which is, in fact, what I would tell you. But, there are always nuances. For instance:
  • If you're in a rural area, distant from great masses of concrete (like overpasses and big brick buildings), insulating neighborhood trees, and/or bodies of water (like rivers, big lakes, and oceans), all of which hold in heat, add a week.
  • If you're in the suburbs, though not really rural but your neighborhood was clear-cut for development or your property is in a low, cold spot, add a week.
  • And, who knows, maybe we'll get another late, odd-ball freeze this year. Or, maybe, it won't freeze again, so January 19th will have been our last frost date for 2018, similar to 2016. Who knows.
In closing, amidst all this talk about freezes, don't forget what's on the other end of spring: the bugs. Though dormant for the moment, here in the Deep South, they are coming. So, the earlier you plant, the better. It's a balancing act, a gamble to some degree, but personally, I'll be planting my own tomatoes in the next week or two - in spite of a possible cold snap yet to come - because I'm bound and determined to have bowlfuls of homegrown tomatoes before the critters eat, bore-into, and carry off my prized fruits wholesale.

And, it's worth mentioning: unless you're in an especially cold spot, early spring freezes tend to be light - nothing a few blankets and buckets can't hold at bay. So, if you can, plant early because there are...
- - -
Only two things money can't buy
That's true love and homegrown tomatoes.

UPDATE: Edible Northeast Florida published a re-worked version of this blog accessible here.
- - -
If I can support you...
in growing homegrown tomatoes for self and neighbor, please, click here to see my services or go ahead and book me for a site visit, so I can assess your site; we'll discuss design, answer your questions, talk #s, and get your project lined up. I offer turn-key raised bed food garden support services here in NE FL and can support aspiring food gardeners in other places across the Deep South as well. To inquire about that, email me.

If you'd like to support me...
in freely sharing my stories & expertise, please consider offering a donation to my tip jar and passing along this update to a friend. Each of my updates take 4-8 hours of resource gathering, writing, and editing, so I want to make sure they don't just sit on the digital shelf.

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Itinerant Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL. Connecting Globally.
(904) 240-9592
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