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Dreaming of Spring: Tomatoes and Corn

00:00 January 31, 2012
By: David Vicari

This has, so far, been a ridiculously mild winter. Balmy weather and sunny days gets me dreaming about tomatoes. I've never had good luck with tomatoes in New Orleans, so I'm certain that if I took the risk and planted tomatoes now, they would be singed back to the ground with a freak, late winter frost. There's no telling what early February will do; winter may decide to retire with a last, deadly exhale that will bring cool temperatures and frost back to my garden. So, I'm refraining from planting anything frost sensitive just yet, but it certainly isn't too early to dream of spring, make some room for what's to come and start planning the spring garden.

By mid-February, I can and will start planting tomatoes, so I better make the space for them now. One of the biggest mistakes eager new gardeners make in this region is starting tomatoes too late. In many parts of the country, April and May are fine times to plant tomatoes, but here my results have been less than satisfactory. The best time to get tomatoes in the ground is sometime in the last two weeks of February, just barely after the risk of frost is gone. By planting at the earliest possible time, while temperatures are still fairly cool, the tomato plant's root system gets a good healthy start in the ground and is ready for explosive growth when warmer, milder weather hits. That way the plant is big enough to withstand a mild bug attack should one occur.

Tomatoes are tougher in regards to colder temperatures than their other summer fruit counterparts like eggplant and squash. Tomatoes will grow in any temperatures above freezing, whereas eggplants and squash require temperatures above 55 degrees, usually not seen reliably until March.

Tomatoes can still be planted in March with the other warm weather stuff, but by the time warmer temperatures hit, the pests come out of hibernation and hatch last year's eggs to wreak havoc on my garden. The tomato hornworms, the stinkbugs and the leaf-footed bugs (tomato annihilators) won't emerge until then and if I manage to get the plants in the ground before warm weather, they have a chance to produce and set fruit before the bugs are big enough to threaten to do too much damage. The hornworms and other bugs don't usually make their presence felt until April.

Corn benefits from the same rough early treatment. When planted in Mid-February, it's far less likely to get destroyed by birds, or cutworms and other soil-bound predators. The corn gets a head start. Farmers have a saying that corn should be 'knee high by the fourth of July', but that saying obviously only applies to northern climates. Here, I say corn planted in mid-February needs to be 'on its way by the beginning of May.'

Tomatoes and corn, famous as summer crops elsewhere, really grow best in our climate in the early spring. By the end of May, the weather is too hot and humid for tomatoes and they tend to get leggy, and mildewy, and stop flowering altogether - which means no tomatoes to eat. Corn can rot, if it even makes it past the stage where it may get destroyed by bugs.

Many gardeners don't bother with corn because it takes a lot of room to grow and it's cheap to buy in the store. The argument that something isn't worth growing because it's cheaper to buy at the store doesn't really hold any validity for me because, quite simply, food I grow tastes better. The second an ear of corn is plucked from the plant, its sugars begin converting to starches immediately. So even farmer's market, locally grown sweet corn can't compete with what my corn that I pick with the water boiling so that it can just go straight into the pot, then onto my plate a minute later.

There are many reasons to plant corn: it's a fun plant to watch grow (it's actually a type of grass) and I recently found a variety adapted to small spaces. It's called Blue Jade Corn and it's an heirloom variety sold by Seed Savers Exchange. It's one of the only varieties of corn capable of growing in containers because of its small stature - so it's perfect for the aspiring urban farmer who may only have a concrete patio with which to experiment. Blue Jade only reaches three feet tall and produces smaller than conventional ears, but often two per plant! The kernels have a sweet flavor and bonus: they're blue! Even though I have a raised bed and garden space I can plant in, I still prefer the short stature of the Blue Jade Corn because it is ready for harvest in as little as 70 - 80 days. And it looks super cool.

It's time to stop dreaming of spring, and make some room for tomatoes and corn.

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