cold-frame2A nursery grower friend texted me last week over an ethical dilemma. Should she sell her precious, seed-raised specialty tomatoes (and assorted tender darlings) to customers that promised faithfully not to plant them for at least another five weeks?

“They want them.” she agonized.  “They say they are going to care for them…but five weeks?”

She knows what can happen to a strong, greenhouse raised tomato relegated to a kitchen window. She knows how strength will be sapped from the plant, willpower stripped from the gardener, and how within two weeks of warm inside temperatures, the poor thing will find itself in cold ground, covered by a makeshift cloche.  In expert hands, there is hope.  In average hands, not so much.

Yet her nursery is open. Her growing houses are bursting and stock must be moved into retail houses prowled by spring-happy consumers. Cash in hand, they are not satiated by new lines in patio furniture or a flat of pansies.  They want those tomatoes and peppers. They want summer before spring is underway.


‘Tis the Season

Her concern, both for customer and plant, was admirable, and I reminded her that no such dilemma lingered in the minds of big-box marketers who have made it almost impossible for the customer to get past racks of tender vegetables in order to grab a dormant fruit tree.

That's not a new hydrangea with dual-tone foliage.  It's freezer burn.

That’s not a new hydrangea with dual-tone foliage. It’s freezer burn.

It’s a tough month of waiting for gardeners who aren’t currently sipping fresh orange juice on the veranda while they watch their avocados ripen.  When you’re lucky enough to be granted a warm, early spring, it’s even tougher.

Many of us suspect that, just like Christmas decorations and bathing suits, the best plants can go early. Too early.  But plants aren’t bikinis – they can’t be stuffed in a closet three months before they’re needed.

In a word, here’s what a professional greenhouse provides those heirloom tomatoes and peppers over the next few weeks:

A professional.

In a few more words…

  • A environmentally regulated environment – heat, light, water and air circulation
  • An expert’s eye on pest control
  • A regular feeding schedule
  • A professional’s fingers nipping and tucking and creating bushy goodness.

It’s a Matter of Environment

“But wait a minute!” I hear you cry. “You’re always telling us we can raise plants from seeds.  Why can’t we house a measly tomato for a few weeks?”

If you’ve been raising your seedlings from seed, and doing it on schedule, you’ve got 2-4 week old seedlings on your hands that are hopefully flourishing under lights, and which will be ready to go out in five weeks just like their nursery-raised brothers. They are smaller than professionally grown plants (which were started earlier for larger market size), and are very used to your environmental conditions.

Taking nursery stock into your home is different. You’re asking large plants to adapt to a dryer, warmer environment with less light, less water (oh come on, don’t pretend you’re that diligent), and less air circulation. Then you’re going to throw them back outside.  Nope, not prudent at this juncture.

So what’s the solution?

Well, first of all, we have enough wonderful independent garden centers out there that you do have a very good chance of getting hold of the specialty variety you want at the right time. If you have put together a cold frame or a small hoop house, you can buy them a couple weeks early and baby them until the ground has warmed up.

A couple weeks, mind you.


Wait for it……

If you’re looking for basic tomato plants – your Romas, your Better Boys, your Celebrities and hybrid Beefsteaks – relax. There will be plenty to buy at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, perhaps it’s time to grow as a gardener and expand your skills to cool season vegetables – which is where most seasoned gardeners channel all their spring-is-here-plantfest-energy. I know that tomatoes are exciting, but as you get better versed as a gardener, you’ll realize that this precious time between thawed ground and shorty-shorts means spinach, snap peas, lettuce, kale, chard, sprouts, broccoli and a host of vegetables that can be seeded, planted, tended and loved just as much as that tomato you ignored in the garden center this morning.


Cool-season salads are just as tempting as warm-season salads.