Organic Gardening & Farming, Plants

A Night In Tomato House

I still remember my first year as a gardener. I had been dreaming of that garden all winter. Literally, I had dreams of watching carrots grow. I could almost taste the tomatoes. You couldn’t buy a good one back then, and I desperately missed the taste of my grandpa’s garden. April seemed so warm, and the official “Last Frost Date” for my area is April 16. I had never really noticed that we frequently get frosts as late as Mother’s Day. I planted my tomatoes in April at the community garden, along with all the other newbies. The elder, more experienced gardeners patiently prepared their soil and waited for May. I had to re-plant.

One would think I’d learn my lesson that year, and I thought I had. I know full well that the frosts will keep coming. I still plant early, starting with hardy peas and radishes on St. Patrick’s Day, but I surround my plants with jugs of water for extra thermal mass, and I build low tunnels over all my raised beds so I can easily cover them with clear plastic sheeting at a moment’s notice. Still, I usually wait to plant most of my really tender seedlings like tomatoes and peppers until May. But this year, my improved seed starting setup produced hundreds of seedlings that grew to such enormous proportions that I simply couldn’t keep them in the house any longer. The spring had been consistently warm and the two week forecast was clear, so I planted. But then the winds changed, and last night’s forecast predicted snow, ice, and a low of 26 degrees.

Perhaps my plants would’ve survived with the coverings I had already provided them and no extra effort. But 26 degrees is extremely cold for a tender plant, and I felt I couldn’t rest with months of work, hundreds of dollars of investment, and most of the summer’s harvest on the line. So, I woke up at 4am, just before the coldest part of the night, and I boiled some water. I took two quart jars of hot water, and two jars each containing a lit tea light candle to place inside the coverings of each raised bed. Then I placed a candle, a watering can full of hot water, a mug of hot tea, a flask of homemade fire cider, and myself inside the big tomato tunnel, and stayed there to monitor the situation and to share some of my own warmth with the plants until the sun came up, the candles burned out, and the ambient temperatures began to rise.

Side Note: If I had enough Wall-O-Waters to place one on every single plant, I wouldn’t have worried. But my garden this year is market sized, and my collection of Wall-O-Waters is not. I felt reasonably confident that my low-budget combination of plastic-covered low tunnels with gallon jugs of water interspersed would work down to 28 or 29 degrees, but I was concerned that 26 might be just that tiniest bit too cold.

Camping Inside The Tomato Tunnel

By 7:30 I was exhausted and a little frosted, so I went inside and crawled back into bed with my own hot water bottle. Later, I returned to check on the plants. All look healthy! I don’t think I lost a single plant. Was all this effort necessary? I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll do a controlled experiment on another 26 degree night and find out. But for now, I’m simply glad that the garden survived, and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the earliest of ripe tomatoes. And, if all goes as planned, some of these fruits will make it to my local farmers market this coming summer.

Tomato Plant Inside A Low Tunnel With Thermal Mass