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Time to plant tomatoes?!

Cold injury visible on tomato plant foliage at

Cold injury visible on tomato plant foliage at Home Depot in Riverhead on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Credit: Handout

Back in March, I advised readers to delay planting peas and other early-season vegetables, despite what ordinarily would be an acceptable planting time, as the unusually cold and snowy winter we've had has left the ground colder and soggier than usual. Everything still seems to be behind schedule, as -- so far -- spring hasn't exactly been springlike.

I wasn't surprised to learn this week that some local retailers are already selling vegetable plants, as they do typically seem to pop up on nursery shelves earlier than they should. But I was shocked to learn that a reader was told it would be safe to plant tomatoes, which shouldn't be set outdoors before mid-May, even during years with a warm spring. In fact, having witnessed overnight frosts in May, I typically recommend waiting until Memorial Day weekend.

But a reader visiting the Home Depot in Riverhead on Tuesday asked a man who was delivering tomato plants if it was OK to plant them now, as she thought it was still too cold. She says he told her that he had checked the weather forecast and that it "looked good," so that's why he was delivering them on that day. When we checked, we noted that on Tuesday, weather.com was predicting an overnight low of 37 degrees, which decidedly does not "lood good" from a tomato standpoint.

The reader says she then approached a store employee to ask about damage to foliage visible on some of the plants being sold -- the damage depicted in the photo above, which I can tell you is cold injury. She says she was told it was "not mold, so it's nothing to worry about." What's more, she reports being told by the garden center employee that, yes, as long as the ground wasn't still frozen, it would be safe to plant tomatoes outdoors.

Frankly, that's the craziest thing I've heard in a long time.

Soil, no matter how thawed, isn't a hospitable environment for tomatoes until it has actually become warm. It's important to point out that even after the ambient temperatures warm up, the soil may not be ready for planting, as it takes longer to warm than air.

The concern is that hobby gardeners who see plants for sale will assume they are safe to set outdoors now, and those who take the initiative to inquire may be given incorrect information. Not only will plants decline, but at $14.98 for a larger plant that already has flowers on it, the loss will hit the wallet as well as the harvest.

Local farmers -- the professional gardeners on Long Island -- don't start transplanting tomatoes here until mid to late May.  We'd be wise to follow their lead.

"Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

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