The best time to plant tomatoes of course will vary depending on where you are planting them, what climate zone you live in.
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There are some basic guidelines that can help you determine when to either plant seeds, or place seedlings in the garden. They should not be placed outdoors until any danger of frost has passed. Even after the last anticipated spring frost , night time temperatures can still be too chilly.
Many gardeners, particularly novices are in a hurry to get started, it's getting warmer outside the sun is shining and getting started on this summers bounty is tempting.
If you planned ahead and started seeds indoors, the seedlings should be at least 5 to 7 inches tall before transplanting outside. They should also be hardened off first. Hardening off is simply a gradual acclimation process for the plants, placing them while still in their pots in the outdoor environment for increasing longevities every day before actually transplanting them into the soil.
Tomatoes perform best in warm weather, they will not grow in temperatures below 50 F., so getting them in the ground earlier won't necessarily ensure an earlier crop. It can also be devastating for your tomato plants if a freak frost zaps them over night.
A simple cold frame can also extend your growing season at either end by a month or even more , in some regions you can grow right through the winter with one.
Cold Frames and Cloches can help extend the early growing season. Water tee-pees, or cloches are inexpensive sheets of connected plastic tubes filled with water, They form a self-supporting wall around young plants. They are proven effective at extending the early growing season of many crops. They will not protect them from freezing temperatures, but they do add several degrees to the plants environment and increase the soil temperature in the immediate vicinity.
Night time temperatures should be consistently above 50 F before placing plants or seeds outside. They will grow at this temperature and set fruit when they mature and it gets a tad warmer - generally approaching 55 - 60 F. minimum. Cold Frames or Cloches will elevate the temperature somewhat. Soil temperature is another indicator, the best temperature is around 55-60 F, but how many gardeners keep a Soil Thermometer on hand ?
Depending on the variety coupled with cultural and environmenatl factors, most Tomatoes require a bare minimum of 75 days but generally closer to 100 days to mature fully.
If you're getting a late start on planting your tomatoes or want to get in a second planting before the seasons end, look for short day varieties that will mature before the first frost hits your area.