By Dick Pierce
Dear Permie Pro,
Q: Is March too late to plant tomatoes?
A: No! Planting season begins mid-January in Austin and runs through March. Beyond that, our daytime/nighttime temperatures get and stay too hot, so most plants get stressed and won’t set fruit. March is the time to plant lima beans, cucumbers, black-eyed peas, peppers and summer squash. It’s also tomato time!
Garden centers like the Natural Gardener and Great Outdoors in Austin, and Kimas Nursery in Bastrop, have a variety of plants adapted to our short growing seasons. Look for 55–70-day plants, as it’s too late to start from seeds. If you like cherry tomatoes, get those—they’re easy to care for, fruit for a long time and hold up very well.
A space-saving idea is to grow a few tomato plants in containers—square, 6-gallon plastic buckets work great. Buy one to two bags of the very best garden soil and layer about four inches of small stones in the bottom of the container for drainage (and a drain hole or two). Fill the container with soil, pick off lower leaves and plant the tomato plants deeply. Insert a heavy wire tomato cage on top, and a bottomless plastic cup around the stem, then add compost or mulch to the top two to three inches. Early in the cycle, your tomatoes will like the full sun, all day. Later, they’ll appreciate the morning sun and some relief in the hot, intense afternoon. With a bucket home they’ll be mobile, well cared for and should reward you with a bountiful harvest. Remember to feed the plants every one to two weeks with seaweed/fish emulsion.
Q: We followed your advice when planning our garden—raised beds, good soil, planted early, consistent watering/feeding—and it’s doing well. What should we do to help our plants as the days and nights get warmer? Our soil seems to dry out so fast.
A: The answer is easy, simple and inexpensive: MULCH! Start with a good watering and one to two inches of compost scratched lightly into the top one to two inches of soil. Add two to three inches of mulch—partially-composted leaf litter, leaves, straw, grass clippings (no clumps), etc. I don’t recommend the use of wood or bark mulch—if pieces get into the soil, they use up nitrogen to decompose, and you’ll want that nitrogen for your veggies. Wood mulch is great in paths and around trees.
Mulch holds valuable moisture and keeps the soil cool during the coming hot days. When it rains, mulch/compost soaks up water for later use by your plants and slows or stops runoff. With our hot, mostly dry climate and our vicious, almost tropical sun, your plants will appreciate this cooling, moist blanket of protection. March is the perfect time to mulch.