Timing chancy for tomato, perfect for strawberries

I shouldn’t have planted that tomato. The strawberries, on the other hand, were perfectly timed.

It felt so wonderfully summery last weekend, I couldn’t conceive of the temperature dipping down to zero, as predicted for last night. But I should have known - because the rule of thumb here in Huronia is to expect frost up to May 28.

So yesterday evening I wrapped a towel around and over the tomato cage. According to my new min-max thermometer, it fell to 1 Celsius overnight. However, early today, I saw no signs of frost on the ground, which must be well-warmed after last week’s heatwave. And when I drove past an Orr Lake cottager’s garden this afternoon, I noticed very-healthy looking bean plants that had clearly not suffered damage. 

In any case my Sun Sugar cherry tomato – a gift from a friend that is supposed to produce zillions of orange fruit of unparalleled sweetness – looked fine when I uncovered it this morning. I left the sides of the cage wrapped up to guard against a biting wind blowing in from the northwest. This is one well-protected plant - it also has a cardboard collar to foil another threat, the cutworm.

‘Cutworms’ are actually moth caterpillars that live in the soil (I saw one yesterday when I was digging, it rolled up into a ball). Cruelly, they fell young tomato plants by taking a bite out of the stem at ground level. Fortunately for backyard growers, they are easily foiled by collars which can be fashioned from paper cups with the bottoms removed, or from sections of the cardboard centres of toilet paper rolls.

The rest of my weekend work was better timed. Laboring in humid temperatures that rose to 28 on the holiday Monday, I made some new strawberry beds. I got 50 plants in - 25 of an early variety called Annapolis, and 25 of the mid-season Kent. A very interested young American Robin attended to my every move over three days and efficiently located dozens of worms at or below the surface of the soil, coming much closer to me than he should. And the next day brought welcome rain that has continued through the week.

I was astonished when I first put in strawberries a few years ago at how well they do here and planted several large beds – sized to fit the nets that are needed to prevent birds from pecking chunks out of the fruit. But after a few years of high productivity, they suddenly gave up on me, and I learned, first, that you have to plant new beds every five years or so and second, that strawberries really hate being invaded by weeds.

For my new beds I used the matted-row system, which calls for setting the plants 24 inches apart, and allowing selected runners to fill in. Alas, no strawberries this year: all flowers must be removed so the plants’ energy goes into strong root formation. The next thing is to get a bale of straw and mulch the beds well, to conserve moisture and discourage weeds.

Frost-hardy vegetables seeded or planted within the last couple of weeks are coming along nicely – salad greens, spinach, parsley, carrots, swiss chard, Brussels sprouts and an old-world vegetable much loved by English and Mediterranean gardeners, the broad or fava bean.

This is a hardy bean that should be planted as early as the ground can be worked because it gets attacked by aphids in high heat, when it is about two to three feet tall and the pretty black and white flowers are forming. The remedy is to pinch off and remove the affected shoots, which is why it’s a good idea to get the plant growing as soon as possible in the cooler weather it enjoys.

I could have planted beets and should have planted my potatoes (sprouting in a cool place) so those are top priority as soon as it feels comfortable out there for me – just too cold and windy today.

As for the rest of the tender veggies, I shall play it safe, and wait until the coming weekend to plant out the tomatoes, peppers and sweet potatoes that are waiting in the greenhouse, and to seed the beans and squashes that are still in their packets (I find they catch up with purchased seedlings once the weather warms up).
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