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What's the earliest you'd dare plant tomatoes??

First...... we're in South Orange County, CA, about a mile and half from the ocean. It tends to be overcast a lot here, and the way our house is oriented provides direct sun to the planting area for only about 4 hours a day.

Our favorite nursery has just begun to bring in some very interesting heirloom tomato plants and is suggesting that people in this area might want to risk planting now in anticipation of an early Spring (apologies to most of the rest of the US). Doing so, if successful, would likely give us two complete cycles this year.

Anyone out there familiar enough with this area to comment? I only have room for 6 plants, so it's not a huge financial investment if it fails.

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  1. Tomatoes require nighttime temperatures between 55F and 65F leaning toward the warmer side of that for good growth. When your nighttime temps hit that range you should be good to go.

    4 Replies
    1. re: morwen

      Ironically I have 3 volunteers that have already come up in my winter greens raised beds. Night time temps have been in the mid 40's. Obviously this isn't ideal.

      1. re: meadandale

        As long as they don't get frosted they'll probably make it. They'll just be slow and sluggish for awhile. If you want to encourage them, cut the bottom out of plastic gallon milk jugs and place the jugs over them, lids off during the day and lids on at night. The jugs act like little greenhouses.

        1. re: morwen

          Due to critter problems my 3'x10' tomato garden is in pots and surrounded by a metal mesh barrier that is about 3' tall. I was thinking of wrapping a clear plastic painting drop cloth around them until things warm up. Depending on the year it can get into the low 40's here at night for the next couple of months. But if all this will do is keep them alive to mature at the same time as if I planted later............ I'm not sure it's worth it. The idea was to try to get in two full sets of plants this year.

          1. re: Midlife

            I've noticed that if I set my plants out too soon they have sluggish growth but they do catch up later on. Here when nights are in the 40's there's always a chance of a drop and a light frost and that's it for the tomatoes so I don't put them out until night time temps are in the mid 50's. However, I've been able to extend my tomatoes on the other end of the season into late November by using plastic on our hoops and that may work for you. We're in zone 6 in sw VA, so picking tomatoes in Nov without a hothouse is an accomplishment. Depending on your winter temps and your garden's micro-climate you may be able to prolong your harvest through the winter using plastic. Tomato plants can be quite long lived as long as their nutrient requirements are being met. You may have to help pollination along though if the bees and other pollinators are dormant.

    2. I have not grown in your region, I am so North East Coastal. But I can say share some things that I know about tomatoes. If your nursery brings in something you want, buy it, See if they will hold it for you, gives a few weeks extra time. If not, tomatoes root from the stem, so leggy plants, planted in the garden with 2 -6 inches of stem buried, root and make a very rigorous adult.
      Tent them. There is a garden cloth that works, I am sure your nursery will know it if not have it, Elsewise a simple newspaper tent works.

      1. I've not used these but a friend of mine swore by these Wall of Water thingies.


        1 Reply
        1. re: c oliver

          I garden in Zone 1 and use these successfully.

        2. I'd be more concerned about only 4 hours of sun than the temps right now...does the planting area get filtered sun, too? Or is it in shade for the rest of the day? I tried to grow tomatoes on my apartment balcony when I lived in Los Angeles, but our building just didn't get enough sun in the courtyard. The plants grew 6 ft tall and only gave me 1 tomato.

          1. OK............... so I bought six varieties and planted them on Sunday. They're in containers and the area is small, so I wrapped the chicken wire enclosure (critters, you know) with a clear plastic painters drop cloth. The nursery man said the problem with cold is not so much ground temp here as it is cold air circulating at night. Soil was equal parts potting mix, organic manure, perlite and sphagnum moss (per several online sites). We'll see how this goes.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Midlife

              I'm in Orange County, CA and I would love to know where you are getting tomato plants this early. None of the nurseries I go to have them yet and so I *thought* the only way to get early tomato plants was to start them by seed.

              I start mine in December and have my plants out in the garden by late January. I dig in some compost into the planting hole, put in the plant, cover them with a tomato cage draped in fine tulle (got on sale from a thrift store for $1), water, and that's it.

              1. re: choctastic

                Laguna Hills Nursery (Gary Matsuoka) has a booth at both the Great Park and Rancho Santa Margarita Farmers Markets ["FRIDAYS-Santa Margarita Farmers Market (Big Lots parking lot, corner of El Portal and Avenida de las Flores) 1pm to 6pm; SUNDAYS-The Great Park Farmers Market (Marine Way where the 5 Freeway crosses over Sand Canyon) 10am-2pm"]. He hopes to have a permanent facility again, at Great Park, later this year. He and his family have provided the best plants and advice in the Saddleback Valley area for 25+ years. Lately he's been sending e-mails about what he'll have at the markets.


                I can't recommend him highly enough.

                1. re: Midlife

                  Thank you so much for this info. I am going to pay a little visit on Friday.

                  I start varieties like Brandywine around now because they like cooler weather. I start varieties that like more heat later on. I love Orange County weather.

                  1. re: choctastic

                    The varieties he had last week were listed in his email as Black Cherry, Black Krim, Lemon Boy, Momotaro, San Francisco Fog, and Sungold. Be sure to speak with Gary directly.

            2. I've put my one plant in the ground already, before this thread started. You had me worried, there! The plant has survived. It doesn't look great, but it doesn't look like it's going to die, either.

              The Armstrong and Home Depots around me all have plants.

              1 Reply
              1. re: jaykayen

                wow, I thought I was the early bird, 'cause I plant in early/mid March! I'm in San Diego County, and put in Early Girls in March, then stagger other plantings through late April. Only had one year where the E. Girls pooped out.

              2. Southern California to Central CA. you'll start seeing volunteer tomatoes around January after good rains, I tend to plant tomatoes January 1 every year, get a head start on everyone! Find the most South facing wall to plant along and the radiant heat will help keep plants warm until Fall. We planted Romano's on a South wall, trellised (espalier) on bamboo along the wall and we had harvest of tomatoes one full year and through the cold winter into the next spring, it was amazing and we're 150 miles North of you, the heirlooms did well along the wall also, just watch for powdery mildew - take off the leaves and throw in trash, not composter. Eating fresh picked tomatoes in December is an amazing feeling.

                7 Replies
                1. re: LiliCooks

                  As you can see from my earlier post, I planted in February. At this point I have several 4 foot+ plants, with lots of flowers, but no fruiting yet. Living on a postage stamp lot, a mile from the OC beach, we have few options as to where to plant and it's relatively cool and overcast a lot. Hopefully the fruiting will start soon as we get more consistently warm days..

                  1. re: Midlife

                    I'm south of you, but inland, so I get lots more sun, I guess. I planted Early Girls early in March and have golf ball sized tomatoes right now. The Better Boy and Big Boy have flowers, but the Big Boy's leaves look iffy. Planted San Marzanos from seed in Feb., and just transplanted them today to slightly larger pots--they're growing, but soooo slowly. Expect to eat a few Early Girls by beginning of June.

                    1. re: pine time

                      Dang - we still have snow on the ground! :-(

                      1. re: pine time

                        Mine are all heirlooms and it seems that where they're planted doesn't get much direct sun this early. I had plenty of fruit last year by June, when I planted in March, so hopefully everything will catch up.

                        1. re: Midlife

                          Although I complain about our Zone 1 we are very lucky to have the intense sun and long days. I am itching to get out there like crazy! Can't wait to plant things in a month.

                        2. re: pine time

                          I'm in Houston. Picked my first Early Girl on Sunday, and 2 more on Monday.

                      2. re: LiliCooks

                        Spot on about the volunteers. I had several come up in January after all the rain we got this year. I have noticed, however, that the volunteers are universally leggy and not at all as healthy as the plants I just put in the ground 3 weeks ago.

                        I think that with tomatoes and peppers...if they go into the ground when the ground is too cold they just never really become big healthy plants like they do if they get planted when the ground is > 55F.

                      3. I planted 72 plants on April 1st.....They are blooming and setting clusters of tomatoes. ~~ Sometimes I I'll plant 6 or 8 "pets" earlier...Plants I've raised from seed...Middle February or early March...Didn't do that this year however.....

                        1. I'm in the OC. Started my plants last December. Picked my first red beefsteak (Rostova) on May 19. Also, my Black Cherry plants are producing pretty well.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: choctastic

                            My guess is you're a bit more inland and have space for your plants to get direct sun. I'm at the coast and the direct sun on mine is about an hour or two a day........ when there's been any. I have 5 small fruit at this point and lots of flowering. Hopefully I'll get enough eventually to make this worthwhile. So far the 5 are averaging $5 each. ;o))))

                          2. I'm on the other side of the country, but would suggest speaking with your County Extension office. They might even have info on the micro-climate for your area.

                            Here May 31st is last frost date and I learned the hard way to go by that. One year we had a glorious April and May and I decided to plant out on Mother's day. Then it snowed.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: calliope_nh

                              Really excellent point - and good advice for everyone. Our last frost date in Reno was May 17 and I'm going to plant this week.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                I live in southern New Hampshire and just put in my tomato plants today.

                                1. re: whs

                                  I planted mine Thursday and it snowed yesterday!