Do you grow tomatoes and peppers? If you’re like most gardeners, you do! These two plants are considered staples in most home gardens.
Growing these plants from seeds indoors or transplanting these plants into the garden isn’t hard. However, getting the timing right when planting these crops outdoors isn’t always quite so simple.
In our recent episode of The Beginner’s Garden Podcast (and the blog post below), you’ll learn how to take the guesswork out of planting tomato and pepper plants. These tips go beyond the basic advice of “plant after the danger of frost has passed.”
We don’t simply want our tomatoes and peppers to live; we want them to thrive. The first step to growing thriving tomatoes and peppers is to get them off to the best start possible. Listen to the podcast here or continue reading.
How important is the average last frost date?
Most gardeners, myself included, use their average last frost date as a benchmark for when to plant most crops. When it comes to tomatoes and peppers, which are warm-season crops, this is certainly true. This means both of these crops need to be planted after the danger of frost has passed.
For my area (and you’ll need go by your zip code, as frost dates can’t be determined by your garden zone — learn the difference here), that average last frost happens around April 1st. I can tell you from past experience, it can be so tempting to want to plant early when we have a warm March!
When do I plant tomatoes?
Take your cues from Mother Nature
While we now know (if we didn’t already) that tomatoes need to be planted after our last average frost date, you’ll want to be aware of other best practices as far as timing goes.
First, keep in mind that your average last frost date is an average. If you’re a seasoned gardener, chances are you’ve experienced a late frost advisory after you already had plants in the ground. While this isn’t ideal, you can attempt to cover your plants in an effort to try and save them. I came so scarily close to losing my tomatoes one year when we had a late freeze.
Keep in mind that late frosts and freezes will happen, and while covering is an option most of us have to exercise at one point or another, if at all possible, try and plant your tomatoes and peppers well after these risky dates.
Plant when it’s best for that plant to grow
When it comes to plant timing, there’s more to consider beyond that average last frost date. Tomatoes have a sweet spot they want to grow in and if we wait and make sure those temperatures are right, we will likely be more successful.
While your tomatoes can survive in 40-degree (F) nighttime temperatures, they prefer 50’s or higher. Wait until your nighttime temperatures are consistently in the 50s. Personally, I avoid planting tomatoes until my average last frost date has passed AND the 10-day forecast shows no low temperatures below the 50s.
Even though we talk about soil temperature more when planting seeds, the soil temperature is also a consideration for when tomato and pepper transplants will thrive. If you transplant these plants into cold soil, those roots will be in no hurry to make a home in your garden, and growth will all but stop until the soil warms up.
What if I plant too soon?
First, it’s happened to all of us. We get so excited, the weather is warm, and we push those plants into the ground. So, don’t feel like you’re the first person who has ever rushed the process.
One of the risks to planting too soon is that your plants could stunt in growth. In my experience, they will rebound when the temperature rises, as long as they weren’t damaged by a frost or freeze. Obviously, your biggest threat is a freeze killing those young plants.
But there’s another risk most of us don’t consider. One of the biggest ways I’ve damaged my plants is by covering them. Sometimes the plants were too tall to fit under a makeshift floating row cover and I forced them anyway; other times I haphazardly covered without taking proper structural precautions and the frozen cover dropped on my plants. I’ve damaged more plants from covering than to the cold itself. So, keep my experience in the back of your mind if you feel like you can plant early and cover them as needed.
What if I plant my tomato seeds indoors too soon?
So far we’ve talked about planting tomato transplants too early. But what about planting tomato seeds indoors too soon?
Guilty! I would venture to say that anyone who plants seeds indoors to transplant has sown those seeds too early. However, there is a price to pay for that sometimes. When you plant tomato seeds too early, you run the risk of the plants outgrowing the space you have for them inside. Then, you find that it’s not warm enough outside for them to be transplanted.
You may find that the grow lights that adequately covered those small seedlings cannot sustain your adolescent plants. They begin competing for light — weakening, growing tall and spindly. You want to avoid this if possible.
If you find yourself facing any of these scenarios, there are three options: First, you can take the risk of transplanting into your garden early. Second, you can let them sit in the container and risk them suffering in the container, becoming rootbound and stressed.
Lastly, you can move them into larger pots. If you’re only growing a few tomato plants, this is definitely feasible. But if you’re like me with a count of over sixty tomato seedlings indoors, potting these up just isn’t feasible without a LOT of extra effort.
In order to avoid having to make this decision, I recommend waiting to sow those indoor seeds. For tomatoes, that means not sowing your indoor seeds until 4-6 weeks before your average last frost date. I’ve tweaked my indoor sowing time each year, trying to find that sweet spot. You may have to test different times as well.
Is there a danger in waiting to plant?
Because of the risks of planting and growing too early, maybe you find yourself asking, “Why can’t we just wait longer?” This really depends on your climate. If you garden in a short-season climate, or if your summers are long and hot, there is a danger in waiting too long to plant.
If you have a short growing season, you don’t want to wait too long because you want as long as a harvest as possible before that fall frost comes. You risk cutting your season short if you wait too long.
If you’re in a long season, like I am, you have very hot summers. When temperatures exceed around 95F, tomato flowers can’t pollinate as well, and tomato production shuts down until the temperatures moderate. My best tomato harvests come when I’m able to get most of my harvest in before the highest summer heat arrives.
Obviously, the key is to find that sweet spot — and this will differ based on your climate. As you plant your tomato planting time, keep in mind that this “sweet spot” may vary from year to year, from season to season, and from garden to garden.
When do I plant peppers?
Just like tomatoes, your peppers must be planted after the risk of frost and most definitely after the risk of a freeze. Also like their tomato friends, the soil temperature and outdoor temperatures need to be conducive to their preference.
Peppers prefer nighttime temperatures in the 60s, so plan to plant them a couple of weeks AFTER your tomatoes. Peppers LOVE heat! They want to start their life with warmer soil and air.
Can you plant peppers too early?
You can plant peppers early, but know they react much like a child who has been told to do something they don’t want to do. They will just sit there in that soil, refusing to grow.
Soil temperature is important to pepper plants. If you live in a warm environment, you’ll probably be just fine in your efforts to grow peppers. If you live in a cooler climate, it can be a bit trickier getting that soil temperature where it needs to be.
You can always cover your soil with a black tarp so that it attracts the sun and heat in an attempt to warm it up. Another option is to cover it with a thick layer of high-quality compost. The black compost will absorb heat and the action of the soil life within that compost can boost the temperature of the soil as well.
Lastly, you can opt for growing in containers or raised beds where the soil temps are usually a bit warmer than in the ground.
What if I plant my pepper seeds indoors too early?
There’s good news! Peppers are a little more forgiving than tomatoes if planted too soon indoors. They don’t grow quite as fast, and I haven’t found them to become rootbound as quickly as tomatoes.
Because they are slower to grow, this means that they can stay inside for a couple more weeks after your tomatoes get put in the ground. But, just like the tomatoes, be prepared to pot them up if needed. I plant my pepper seeds indoors at the same time as I do the tomatoes to account for this difference in growth rate, and it has always worked out perfectly.
Can I wait longer to grow peppers?
Because peppers thrive in heat, waiting is usually a good thing when it comes to planting them in your garden. The one exception to this is if you live in a short-season climate.
If you wait too long to plant peppers, and your gardening season is short, you may run the risk of running out of time in your summer for a good pepper harvest. This is especially true if you want to grow bell peppers that turn from green to red.
Will peppers stop producing in the heat like tomatoes? In my experience, my peppers have never stopped producing nor have they become stunted by the heat, so for me with a long growing season, waiting until summer is well-settled in is the best course of action. In the deep South (US), afternoon shade can help prevent sunscald on developing peppers, so keep that in mind later in the year.
While “plant after the danger of frost has passed” is a good starting point for knowing when to plant your tomato and pepper transplants in the ground, finding the ideal time carries more nuance.
Many seasons Mother Nature doesn’t allow us to find that “perfect time,” but by keeping these factors we’ve discussed here in mind, my hope is that you will be well-equipped to choose the best time to transplant these staple home garden crops.
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