Cold war

Russian tomatoes that grow in cold weather and more hot tips for your garden this year

Written by Joe Stumpe | Photography by Visual Fusion Photographics

The Russians are coming! That's news you don't often hear in connection with gardening, but it's the case with a couple of tomato varieties taking off in the United States.

The tomatoes are called the Siberian and Paul Robeson, and both were developed in the former Soviet Union. The latter was named in honor of the famous American opera singer whose left-wing politics made him a favorite in the U.S.S.R. You don't have to be a Communist to appreciate what makes these varieties special.

"They're cold tolerant  so they will extend the season  they will grow into fall," said Jim Denning of Denning's Greenhouse & Garden Center, 10707 W. 21st Street. "The one called the Siberian is real early producing  48 to 50 days. The Paul Robeson, they are cold tolerant too, and unique in that they have a sweet and smoky taste. Of course, it's cold in Russia, so that's where they came from." In gardening, it seems like there's always something new under the sun.

This year, that news is that the sun was out and unusually warm very early on. But if you're reading this and haven't done much (or anything) with your garden yet, don't panic. The growers with the most experience  and the most to lose  probably haven't either.

"Professional growers, they usually wait until the calendar says it's time to go," Denning said. And that, in south-central Kansas, is about April 10-12. Just last year, Denning notes, the temperature dipped down to 25 degrees on April 4. Here are some more solidly grounded tips for your yard and garden from Denning:

 If the temperature does plummet this spring, don't freak out over tulips and daffodils that have been up for weeks. "The bulbs are used to that. They can take a frost."

 Branch out. Along with your favorites, try something new. You can find 50 varieties of tomatoes and 40 of peppers at Denning's alone.

 Chile peppers remain a hot commodity (so to speak). "There's a certain group out there that wants the hotter, the better," Denning said. That's why he's sold a lot of blistering Ghost peppers and Caribbean Reds over the last couple years. But peppers that aren't quite as hot are finding a place too: Fooled You tastes like a jalapeno without the heat. There's another jalapeno called the Gigante that, at 50 percent bigger, is good for stuffing.

 On the strictly ornamental side, butterflyand bee-friendly plants have become very popular, Denning said. "Everybody's trying to promote bees and butterflies." A plant call the Monarch Promise, part of the milkweed family, attracts butterflies to lay their eggs. "When they hatch, they have food right below their feet. Normally people don't like to see their plants eaten up, but these, they do."

 It's okay to plant most grass, shrubs and tree before the soil has reached optimum temperature. As long as they're dormant, they will simply wait on the soil to heat up to begin germinating. However, if you buy a tree that's leafed out, a late frost could hurt it.

 If you ignore Denning's advice (see aboveand a late frost descends on your tender vegetable plantings, you've got a couple options. One is to cover them with milk jugs, blankets or cardboard  anything to keep the frost off. Another, seemingly counter-intuitive, is to spray them with water from your garden hose just before sun-up, the coldest part of the night. "The leaves are actually warmed up by the water, since the water temperature is about 50 degrees."

 Vegetables that lend themselves to early planting are potatoes and peas, onions, radishes and the cole crops  cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and broccoli. The same goes for pansies and petunias.

 Even if no late frost materializes, it probably won't do you much good to rush peppers, tomatoes and other warm-weather plants into the ground. Research has shown that those planted later, when the soil is warmer, tend to make up any delay. Waiting to plant peppers in particular "is a good idea," Denning said.

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