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Timing tomatoes and peppers

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Despite a cool, damp start this past Saturday, we had a terrific Agricultural Field Day at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Cook College Campus, in New Brunswick. In addition to all of the great music, crafts and activities for adults and kids, we had a tremendous assortment of unique plants for sale. The famous 'Ramapo' tomato developed at Rutgers was the hot item that sold out within hours of the start of the program.

At our Master Gardener and EARTH Center plant sale and informational tables, we answered many great questions about vegetables, herbs and flowers. Here is one of the questions.

Q. When is the best time to plant tomatoes and peppers?
-- Rick, East Brunswick

A. I recommend that gardeners wait to plant cold-sensitive vegetables until after the last traditional frost date for central New Jersey, which is May 15. In northern New Jersey, it's safer to wait until May 20, and in the southern part of the state, you may be able to plant as early as May 7. The last frost-free date is an estimate based on past weather patterns.

If there is a danger of frost or cooler temperatures after planting, regardless of date, you should cover sensitive plants with a large container such as a frost cap, bucket or garbage can to protect them from the cold. Row covers available at many garden centers can be draped over larger plantings to protect them but only provide a few degrees of protection. Place row covers on small stakes or wire hoops so they do not touch the tops of sensitive plants. (However, you can place row covers directly over strawberry plants.)

The combination of row cover and a container can provide additional protection on cool nights. Plants that are in containers can be brought inside or placed in sheds or garages for protection. Use a light mix for container plants so that they are easier to move.

Cold-sensitive transplants that should be planted after the last frost-free date include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, melons, squash and snap and lima beans.

Vegetables that can tolerate cooler spring weather include lettuce, peas, carrots, spinach, kale, mustards, collards, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Carrots and beans are best seeded directly in the garden.

Event: Join us on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the EARTH Center, 42 Riva Ave., South Brunswick, for our second big plant sale and garden informational day. 'Ramapo' tomatoes will probably be a big hit once again. A wide variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers will also be available.

Bring a picnic basket to sit in the park and learn about composting, recycling, pest-resistant plants for your garden and environmentally sound gardening and landscape care. I will give an hourlong lecture on "Earth-wise" Lawn and Landscape Care at 2 p.m. Call (732) 398-5262 for more information.

Also, the New Jersey Agricultural Museum on College Farm Road in New Brunswick will sponsor a plant auction on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Doors open at 8:30 a.m. for plant viewing. The sale includes a wide variety of interesting trees and shrubs as well as an assortment of bedding plants and hanging baskets. I will be on hand to answer questions.