Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; firstname.lastname@example.org
With the recent cold, windy weather as a reminder, it is important to understand those factors that affect success with transplanting early warm season vegetables. Remember that the average date of the last killing frost is around April 25 for most of the Delaware and cold weather events can occur well into the middle of May.
Earliest plantings of watermelons, cantaloupes, summer squash, and tomatoes will begin the last week in April. First transplanting of crops such as peppers and eggplant will begin in early May. One of the characteristics that all of these crops have in common is that they are warm season vegetables that are sensitive to cold temperatures, both in the root zone and above ground. There has been a tendency to risk earlier and earlier plantings as growers try to hit the early market. Over the years, many of our early plantings of summer vegetables have suffered because of early cold damage and inadequate provisions to protect plants.
For early transplanted warm season vegetables, choose the lightest ground that warms up quickly. Plant higher sections in the field first. Avoid areas that receive any shade from woods or hedgerows. Early fields should be protected from extreme wind and should not have frost pockets. Rye windbreaks planted between each bed are desirable for early plantings because they limit heat transfer by wind. If no rye windbreaks have been planted, then consideration should be given to using row covers to protect the plants – either clear slitted or perforated low tunnels or floating row covers. Even where windbreaks have been used, row covers may be necessary for extremely early plantings.
Lay plastic mulch well ahead of time to warm soil. Black plastic mulch should have excellent soil contact. I have seen many fields with plastic this year that have been laid on cloddy soils. These bed will not heat up effectively. Firm beds and tight mulch are much more effective in warming soils. Make sure that there is good soil moisture when forming beds and laying plastic because soil water will serve as the heat reservoir during cold nights.
When producing transplants, use larger cell sizes and grow plants so that they have well developed roots in those cells for the first plantings. Large cell sizes will perform better than small cells in early plantings.
Careful attention needs to be paid to hardening off warm season vegetable transplants that will be planted early. Gradual acclimation to colder temperatures will reduce transplant shock. Do not transplant tender, leggy plants or plants coming directly out of warm greenhouse conditions for these early plantings.
Watch extended weather forecasts and plant at the beginning of a predicted warming trend. Monitor soil temperatures in plastic beds and do not plant if they are below 60°F. Soil temperature in beds should be measured at the beginning of the day when at the coolest. When soil temperature conditions are not favorable, wait to plant. Avoid planting in extended cloudy periods, especially if plants have come out of the greenhouse after an overcast period. These plants will not perform well. Extra caution should be taken to minimize root injury during transplanting. When transplanting, make sure that there is good root to soil contact and there are few air pockets around roots.
In years with cold, cloudy, windy weather after transplanting, we have had large losses of transplants in the field. It is critical to have warm soil conditions after transplanting to allow roots to grow out into the bed quickly. In cold, cloudy conditions, plants shut down physiologically, little root growth occurs, and the existing roots on the transplant do not function well. If there is any wind, plants lose more water than they can take up and they die due to desiccation. This is accelerated when the sun does come out – the first sunny day after an extended cold, cloudy period is when you will see the most wilting of weakened transplants.
If cold weather occurs after transplanting, warm season vegetables vary in their ability to tolerate adverse weather after being set out. Tomatoes will stop growth but will grow out without much damage once warm weather returns. Summer squash and cucumber transplants may be temporarily stunted but generally grow out of the condition. Watermelons will hold if they have been hardened off properly. Cantaloupes can be stunted if exposed to excessively harsh early conditions. Peppers and eggplants will not put on any root growth until temperatures are warm enough. If stunting occurs on any of these warm season vegetables, you may lose the early advantage you were seeking. In addition, remember that all of these vegetables are susceptible to frost damage and will be killed by a late freeze.