Growing Tomatoes Successfully Despite Cold Temperatures and RainJune 16, 2010
I’m still grumbling about the cold, wet late spring we’re having in Seattle. I like some sunshine, and I like some heat. And so does my garden.
Sure, rain out of the sky is better than rain out of the tap. It’s likely more pure, and it’s certainly less expensive. With all the rain we’ve had so far this spring, I haven’t turned on my irrigation once. That’s a bonus. But in return, I’m having to tent crops like garlic to protect it from too much rain and keep it from rotting. As well, I’ve had to come up with creative solutions to get my heat-loving crops into the ground and growing despite the cold.
My first line of defense against unpredictable Seattle spring and summer weather is to grow tomatoes designed for short, cool growing seasons. And, I grow them from seed (or at the very least buy starts from local growers who produce starts designed for this area). A few of my favorite tomatoes for our region are Oregon Springs, Stupice, Siberia and Gold Nugget. Plus, this year I’m trying out another – Peron. These have proven to hold up against the cold, grow strongly and withstand fungal diseases like blight.
My next trick is to do several successions of seedings and potting. This way, if an early crop fails, I have others coming up behind them. Even in a short growing season, this can make a difference.
When we face a spring like this one, where mid-June temperatures struggle to reach even 50F, my next trick it so mix up my growing techniques:
Greenhouse Pots: I pot up several tomatoes into 3-10 gallon, black plastic containers. I recycle plastic grower containers that previously contained large shrubs and trees. The black absorbs heat and keeps the roots warmer and happier. These containerized tomatoes will never go into the ground; I will keep them in the unheated greenhouse indefinitely. If it heats up enough, I can move the pots out into the garden later in summer. If the summer continues to have flip-flop weather, I may be moving the pots in and out of the greenhouse on warm days. This helps ensure pollinators visit them as they troll through the garden for food. If it doesn’t heat up at all, I keep them inside and lure in the bees to do a bit of pollination work on these potted plants.
Determinate tomatoes and cherry tomatoes are ideal for this method. It also works nicely for late season crops.
If you don’t have a greenhouse, rigging up a temporary hoop house can work nearly as well.
In Ground Protection: At a certain point, the plants simply must go into the ground. I plant them into the ground on one of the warmer days when soil temps are more friendly. And, since tomatoes will root off their stems, I pinch out several leaf nodes to bury more stem and encourage more strong rooting. Then, I rig up protective sheeting. In some cases, another hoop house may be in order. But, if your hoops tend to be short and your plants will grow tall, this may not be a long term solution.
This year, I modified my hoop house concept in the hellstrip, attaching ventilated plastic sheeting to the square tomato cages. The ends of each row are open to allow some air ventilation, which helps keep down disease. As well, pollinators can enter through these openings. The plants are mostly protected from splashing and benefit from the added trapped heat inside the plastic. However, the surrounding soil gathers rainwater, upon which the plants can draw. It may not be pretty, but remember that word – tolerance. Everyone has their level!
Any kind of tomato developed for cool season production can do well in hooped areas. Just be sure to always check for disease. Make sure they have plenty of water. And try not to let the plastic contact the growing leaves; this can burn them or trap water, which becomes conducive to disease growth.
If your tomatoes are in the ground (or even in a pot) and look awful, consider them carefully.
- If they have fuzzy fungus growing on the stems, yank them and dispose of them. You may already have late blight. There’s no coming back from this, and if you don’t get rid of an infected plant you will likely infect the rest of your plants and any number of other plants throughout your community.
- If they’re turning colors that aren’t green, you may need to provide fertilizer. Rain can cause nutrients to rush out of the soil rapidly. (Note: discoloration can be caused by a number of other factors as well.)
- If they just haven’t grown at all you may have a stunted plant. Sometimes digging up and replanting is the answer. Sometimes yanking a failure and starting over with a strong new start will give you better results.
Have questions about your tomato situation? Let us know.
Have a fantastic variety you love to grow, please share!
Already have fruit forming despite a cold, wet season? Share your secrets, please!