Do I have wait for Mother's Day?
“When should I plant my tomatoes?” A common answer in central Iowa is “any time after Mother’s Day”. But does that rule of thumb still apply this year? The best planting time for tomatoes depends on your weather conditions, but here are a few guidelines that can help you decide when to plant regardless of where you live.
The first thing to understand about planting tomatoes (and peppers, eggplants, melons, and squash) is that they are warm weather plants. Tomatoes will not grow in temperatures below 50 F. The first sign that it is warm enough to plant is the night time temperature stays consistently above 50 F. The ten-day weather forecast for my town in central Iowa indicates we won’t reach those temperatures in the next 10 days.
Why should I care about the soil temperature?
The second thing to consider is the temperature of the soil about 4" deep. Ideally, tomatoes should be planted when the soil temperature is at least 60 F in the early morning. You can use a soil thermometer, a kitchen thermometer, or just stick your finger in the soil for a minute and see if it feels cold (if it feels uncomfortably cold it is probably below 60 F). So far this year, even the maximum temperature at the closest station taking soil temperatures hasn’t reached 60 F.
Why should I care about the weather forecast?
The third thing to consider is the weather forecast. Even if there have been a few warm days and nights and the soil temperature warms to 60 F, a forecast for significant cold weather indicates it may be better to wait to plant until warmer temperatures are in the forecast.
What about this year?
So where does my garden in central Iowa stand on these 3 considerations? Our night time low temperatures this week have been in the upper 40's most nights. The soil temperature in my west-facing raised garden beds this morning has warmed, but the night time lows in the 10-day forecast has a mix of 40's and 50's. All of that suggests I should wait another week or two, which puts us pretty close to….Mother’s Day.
What about Peppers, Eggplants, Squash and Melons?
If you are like us, tomatoes are not the only type of plant we like to grow. We also grow peppers, eggplant, squash, and melons. Add 10 degrees to all of the tomato temperatures above when deciding when to plant peppers, eggplant, squash, and melons. Cool season plants like peas, potatoes, onions, celery, kale, carrots, broccoli, and cabbage can be planted now if not already done.
If you haven’t purchased tomato, pepper, strawberries, herbs, or squash plants yet, check out our plant sale page at https://www.iowabackyardfarmer.org/springplantsale.html
Don't let the pretty flowers and greening grass fool you, early spring is a rollercoaster event. There are unexpected freezes, snow, rain, and ice. There are sunny warm and windy days too. We keep what I affectionately call "farm hours" this time of year. Farm hours is that time of year where you work not until quitting time, but until the job gets done. Usually there is more work to do than can reasonably fit in a 24 hour period. I'm unusually grateful for a long hot shower after a hard day in the dirt. Steven gets up many nights in April somewhere between 1-2 am to start or restart the propane heaters in the greenhouses. It has been a challenging week. The high winds earlier this week made us rethink the structure of the in-the-garden greenhouse. The design was for a mythical somewhere that never gets wind at more than 10 mph. We ended up needing to frame everything in and screw everything down to keep the greenhouse from flying away.
The propane tanks needed to be filled, but the store we get propane from was having problems of their own. Already short on propane, we found that we were also down our newest heater which stopped lighting as well as and propane hose when the thermal safety bushing cracked and fell off. We made do with some electric heaters for one night, but they tripped a breaker at 2:30 am and it took Steven some time to get everything back on and warm. He bought another propane heater yesterday, and the forecast has warmed so that we haven't needed propane for a few nights, but we always have to stay alert.
I get the daytime hours. Temperatures that get too low at night switch to temperatures that can get too high during the day. A nice sunny 60 degree day can turn into a 100 degree oven in the greenhouse. I watch the thermostats, opening and closing windows and doors, trying to keep everything at a happy temperature. With plants stuffed into the aisles and under the lights downstairs, and strawberries everywhere, it takes some care to make sure all the plants get the attention they need. The plants however, are blissfully unaware of all the drama. They keep growing confident that we have everything under control. They are growing at an accelerating pace and will be ready for pick up as early as Friday.
I can hear you thinking that this all sounds like work - long hours, sleepless nights, dirt everywhere. We have reached a point in our spring projects where even we start to ask ourselves if this is all worth it. Don't worry, it is. But I think it's important to remember that everything that is good and worthwhile to do has moments where you have to struggle. For example, my girls set goals to get up and exercise early, so yesterday they did a Jillian Michael's workout. I love hearing her give encouragement at that moment of fatigue where you are thinking of stopping. It's almost like she can tell exactly where you are thinking of quitting. Cheerfully, but firmly she encouraged them to the end of the workout, where she congratulated them on a job well done and promised that if they were diligent and worked hard amazing things would happen.
I am a big fan of hard work, but sometimes even diligent effort is not enough. A pair of young robins built a nest under my deck again this year. I try to tell them that it is not a successful spot, but they are undeterred. The wind caught their nest and it crashed to the ground eggs and all. They will build again, this time in a more secure place. Where you build your nest matters. It is discouraging to do all that hard work only to find that a small wind can dislodge everything you worked on.
Gardening is like nest building, What seems like a reasonably straightforward task has many details that if not attended to can lead to disaster. Here are some common April garden mistakes. If you can avoid these, your chances of success and enjoyment in gardening go way up!
1. Planting too early. Everyone is anxious to get growing in the spring. With the pandemic we have seen a big increase in people interested in growing their own food. Planting as soon as possible seems like the fastest way to food. Our average last frost date in central Iowa is around April 26th, but the "safe time" where you are very unlikely to see another frost for the season is closer to May 9th. Even if it doesn't freeze again this year, peppers and tomatoes and squash really do not like to grow at temperatures less than 55 degrees, and they don't have jackets to put on when they feel cold. The old wisdom is to wait until Mother's Day to plant warm season vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. This year Mother's day is May 10th, that's a great time to plant. The weather this year looks like it will be warm between now and then, but be ready to cover tender crops if you put them out early and the temperature drops. Add 10 degrees of heat for squash and melons eggplant and other warm season plants. They like to be warm. There is plenty of time for everything you want to grow there is no worry at this point. Remember that daytime temps are nice, but your plants are sleeping outside all night. Look for a good forecast where the overnight temperatures stay over 50 degrees at night and there is not too much rain. Read "Can I Plant Tomatoes and Peppers Now?" for more details.
2. Knowing what to start from seed and what to buy as plants. When you buy tomato, herb and pepper, and onion seedlings to plant in your garden, what you are really buying is time. Yes, you can start them from seed May 10th, but you will be a good two months behind my seedlings that I planted in March. To maximize the amount of food we get from the garden, I always start these seeds early inside or buy them. Rosemary can take more than 200 days to grow from seed to harvest. We only have about 160 frost free days here. I always buy a plant. On the other hand, lettuce, peas, carrots, beets, and beans, either do not like being transplanted or grow quickly from seeds. Can you transplant them, yes, does it save you money or time, not really. Things like squash and melons fall into a grey area. They are easy enough to start from seeds, but getting a little jump on the season is nice as you can get a harvest before the insects try to take over, and getting a headstart on long season melons like watermelons is nice too. If you are on a tight budget, save your money for those plants that take the longest to grow, or that will give you a much bigger harvest if planted early. That would be peppers, tomatoes, onions, and some herbs. Some herbs like tarragon, thyme, chives, sage, and oregano are perennial here, so you can plant them once and have them come back next year.
3. Starting seeds indoors too early or too late without enough light. Lots of people want to know if it is too late to start seeds now. That depends on your goals and your budget. Ideally things like peppers and tomatoes would be started 6-8 weeks before the last frost. That is about the middle of March. We start ours a little earlier because I have a great set up and greenhouses, and I really like being able to eat fresh ripe tomatoes at the end June instead of the beginning of August. Starting them now is better than later, but you'll be even further ahead to buy a plant that was started a month ago. I see lots of pictures of sad spindly seedlings grown inside by anxious gardeners. You need lots of light to start seeds well. Without light and heat, and a breeze, seeds will grow tall and thin reaching for light they can't find, and the damp soil is prone to molding without good airflow. It is discouraging, and these etiolated plants have a hard time transplanting outdoors. Don't give up! Starting seeds is a very good thing, but to do it well, you need enough time, good light, heat, and airflow. If you don't have the setup for that and haven't started yet this year, just buy good tomato and pepper starts and plant the rest as seeds. For more tips on starting seeds read seedling-starting-strategies.html on our blog.
4. Growing stuff your family won't eat. I love to try new things. I like variety. My family is not that adventurous. We recently did a minimal spending pantry challenge. One of the things that I learned is that we didn't eat stuff we don't like. Not even when it was all our budget offered. During a time of stress kids don't like to try new foods. Parents don't either. I know that the pictures of full gardens look amazing. The colors and shapes. Harvest bounty is amazing. But if you have limited time, space, money, or energy, focus on what your family likes. Don't feel obligated to grow tomatoes just because everyone else does if your family won't eat them. There are hundreds of other options.
5. New garden troubles. If you are new to gardening this year, you might not even have a garden space picked out or prepared. Here is my advice. Pick a good sunny fairly level spot that is not in the low spot of your yard where it floods when it rains. You don't need fancy or expensive garden boxes. Our first garden was just a patch of dirt. That gets muddy, but it works. We used upcycled deck boards that we got free off Craigslist for another garden. That worked too, but we could have used some topsoil or compost. In the community garden we just have a 10x15 plot of land that we rake up into raised soil beds. In our formal garden now we have blocks. Things we have learned. Raised garden beds work best here in Iowa where we get lots of rain. Compost is great and inexpensive. We can get a ton (literally) of compost from the Metro Waste Authority at the landfill for $10. Before we had a trailer, we just rented one from Uhaul. We also have gotten topsoil from Terry's Services. You can pick it up, or he can deliver it. He's busy, so plan ahead and watch the weather. Wet soil is too heavy to haul. We used to rip up all the grass with a rototiller, but you really don't need to. Just lay down a nice thick overlapping layer of cardboard where you want the garden, and then put the topsoil and compost over that. If you are in a hurry, you can spray the grass with Roundup wait a few days, and then cover with cardboard to speed up the process. The cardboard blocks light from the grass, and eventually just composts with the grass into the soil. Ideally you would do this in the fall so the grass would have time to break down, but I'll be making new first year garden beds to plant in this year as soon as the greenhouses come down. We'll try to put 8-12 inches of compost mixed with topsoil down where we plant to plant. It will work just fine. There is plenty of time.
6. Don't Give Up! Just like my young robin friends, you will probably have some setbacks. We still have troubles every year. Not enough rain, too much rain, rabbits, insects, hail, a pet dog who loves to sleep in the strawberries like my Sam did. There are too many possibilities to list. When one of these setbacks come to you, have your moment, but keep going! Remember to do the small things. Great things can happen with such small efforts. Be out in your garden for a few minutes each day. Pick weeds early and often, water regularly. The great thing about gardening is that living things want to grow! They will give you 100% effort every time. The sun provides all the light and heat you need, and there is plenty of fresh air outside, so growing outside is not nearly as hard as growing inside plants. Here is central Iowa we usually get a nice amount of rain too. You can do this! Just do the very best you can each day to do the basic things, and you will find in time that these small and simple things, combined with daily effort bring a very rewarding harvest. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish! Let's get growing!
When I was younger I used to go hiking with my grandpa. I enjoyed being in the mountains, it was exciting and fun. Inevitably though, my legs would tire long before his would. Not knowing the trails like he did, I would begin to doubt the wisdom of walking so far. I would begin to ask how much further it was until we would get back to the car. When I could see the car at the trailhead, I knew rest was not far away. He would always say, "it's not far, just two more miles." It didn't seem to matter how long we hiked, the answer was always "two more miles." Even when we were almost there and I could see the car, he would cheerfully say, "just two more miles." As I got older and my legs got stronger we could go on longer hikes. Grandpa loved to climb the fourteeners, peaks over 14,000 feet high. I went on some of those hikes. I didn't always make it to the top. When we climbed Mount Harvard, I gave up just short of 14,000 feet, feeling I could walk no further. My dad stayed with me. We were very high up in the mountain. I could look over the edge of a ridge, it was a dizzying drop and we could feel the wind rushing up the side of the mountain. I could see the rest of the group continuing on to reach the top. I was still very young, but I remember thinking that if I had known that it was only that short distance to the top I probably could have kept going just a little longer.
I got older and stronger and did make it to the top of other peaks. Mount Sherman was not my favorite. We could drive up to 11,000 feet, so it was a short hike, but it seemed like the whole ridge of the mountain was covered in slippery shale. I felt like progress was so slow, as my feet would slide backwards with each step. We were late getting to the top of La Plata, not reaching the top until late afternoon because grandpa did not feel well. My dad's knees locked up on the way down so going down was slow too. I had a flashlight and extra batteries, but they were used up by the time we met the search party coming to look for us from the base camp. It was well after dark before we made it back to camp. It started snowing August 3rd on Long's Peak as we reached the boulder field. We kept going but I didn't have the right gear. Wet and chilled to the core, it took me hours to warm back up. I loved those hikes and others like them. I was with family, I was in the mountains and it was an adventure, and since I'm writing about it now, spoiler alert, we always made it home.
I think there is something in all of us that likes a challenge, and the chance to stretch our abilities. We don't like not knowing how far it is to the end of those challenges. Grandpa would always encourage me to just keep walking. When I was younger I thought if I could just get far enough ahead, I could sit down and rest until everyone caught up, and in that way, I would not wear out. It wasn't a good strategy. I would run to get ahead, and find a place to sit down and rest. Grandpa would catch up to me before I was rested, and I would have to get up and start walking again. My sore legs would protest about getting up again. He assured me that this was a much harder way to hike, and that simply walking was much easier, than running, sitting, and having to get up again. He was right. I did get better at hiking, but I notice that I still have the same tendency to ask when going through a hard time, how much further it is to the end, and then trying to sit down on the trail. Neither strategy is helpful, since asking repeatedly does not change the distance left to go, and sitting down does not get you there faster. It just makes getting started again harder.
We are going through a difficult hike right now in the world with COVID-19. I have wondered how much longer until this problem passes. Grandpa would have said "just two more miles." Spencer W. Kimball who faced many challenges and much adversity in his life said: "There are great challenges ahead of us, giant opportunities to be met. I welcome that exciting prospect and feel to say to the Lord, humbly, 'Give me this mountain,' Give me these challenges." He and grandpa both knew how to climb the mountains of our lives. They knew that giving in, and giving up won't get you where you want to be. What I have learned over the years is that focusing on the distance left has often kept me from enjoying the view and the good parts of the hike. I've also learned to love the effort, the attempt, even if you don't get to the top the first time. It's amazing to sit in the tops of the mountain and look down at the clouds and birds and mountains below. But we only stay a few minutes at the top. We have to get down off the peak before the afternoon thunderstorms roll in and back down to the camp. You can drive to the top of Mt. Evans, and we have done that too. But it is just not the same without the effort involved in the other climbs. The appreciation of the amazing view is mostly a feeling of wonder that you have climbed it yourself. So we take in the thrilling view, and then keep hiking, finding joy in the journey, because no one gets to just hang out at the peak.
In March, schools were cancelled for a little bit, then a little longer. Steven was told to work from home for a few weeks, then a few weeks longer, and then another few weeks were added. Closures of businesses continue to pile up and the list of rules for how to behave when going out keeps getting longer. It seems like this hike will never end, and somehow it feels like it is getting longer. I would worry, except I know it will end, and when we get back to the safety of the car at the trailhead, and then back home, what a story we will have to tell. So instead of checking the news feed constantly to see if anyone has seen the end of this trail, or sitting down and letting everyone do whatever they feel like for who knows how long, I need to keep going. How? Counting your blessings, or noticing the good, is one way. Remembering to do what needs to get done is another.
Robert Frost wrote a poem about stopping in the woods on a snowy evening. Though the scene was so beautiful that he pauses in his journey to take it all in, he concludes his poem by saying,
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
He knows he can't stop long, he has to keep going to reach home. So do we. Even though we have been "home" for weeks, there are still things that need to get done. Sitting and waiting won't get me there or get them done.
So what are we doing? Ready or not spring is here! I, like many of you I am really counting on a good garden this year. I check the news and notice that vegetable gardening and chickens are of high interest this year. Food you grow yourself isn't subject to limit one restrictions, amd the price is pretty reasonable. The variety can be exceptional. I would encourage you to grow all that you can. Looking ahead through the troubles that surround us, growing a garden seems like a great strategy, and also good therapy. It gets you outside in the sunshine, which always makes me happier.
So far this year we have planted peas, kale, chard, cabbage and onions. We have planted raspberries, rhubarb and boysenberries that came in the mail. We have pruned the elderberries, and hooked up the rain barrels. Steven and Robert are working on building another greenhouse in the garden, since we are past capacity in the other greenhouses. Megan is backfilling all the trays I used to start tomatoes with seeds for the cut flower garden she has planned for this summer. I'm working on my goal of making videos for a YouTube channel. We get lots of questions about gardening, and want to be able to help new gardeners have a good experience and success with gardening. We are working hard to get ready for our spring plant sale. We are planting, watering and transplanting, and planting some more. However long this takes, we will be in a better spot if we keep going with our garden plans. We are also contemplating expanding our garden. I have drawn and redrawn plans for flower beds, and additional vegetable beds. We want to find a way to utilize the space currently under the greenhouses in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, and also helps us with the problem of muddy patches in the yard that are caused by having the greenhouses up for several months each year. So we are dreaming and planning.
We are looking ahead to see if we can spot potential problems in our plans. We notice that seeds are selling fast, and so is canning equipment. Since we preserve so much of what we eat in the garden, we are trying to source things that we will use later in the season for canning. We have a year's supply of canning lids bought on sale at the end of the canning season, but we also need things like lemon juice for tomatoes, sugar for jams, and sauce mixes for things like pickles and spaghetti sauce. I'll get what we need now, so I don't have to worry about finding it when I need it later.
We are trying to be more intentional with our time. It is tempting to just sit down and wait until everything returns to normal, but like sitting down on the trail, it's really not helpful. Kids with unlimited screen time are cranky, and prone to fighting with each other. I get cranky when I feel like I'm the only one cleaning up. We needed a better plan. Yesterday, we made block schedules and planned out our day. We weren't super strict about it, but with a plan and a purpose in mind, we accomplished so much more. We worked on our goals. There was exercise, instrument practice, learning and helping. Yay! We are trying to reach out to friends and family, and to stay in contact with and lift others. We are participating in a worldwide fast on Friday for relief from our current troubles. There is lots to do.
I want to look back on this time with joy. This unique time will end. This hike will end and we'll start a new one. Our schedules will fill back up and everyone will have places to go and things to do. I can't see ahead past the current bend in our trail. I don't know what comes next. I do know this is a treasured time to hold them close and just be a family for a little while. In my experience it is easier to hold everyone close and enjoy them after they have worked hard all day and have something to talk about. It's easier to enjoy the day when you've made some headway on your trail. Keep walking. How much longer do we have? About two miles. We've got this mountain!