It will soon be time to set out tomato plants, an act one performs when the weather has settled. That means warm soil, night temperatures of at least 45 degrees and no risk of a sudden reversion to winter.
I no longer believe in settled weather. In the current age of climate confusion, a backup plan is an essential part of a gardener's tool kit.
Where tomatoes are concerned, the best crop insurance is to root some extras from cuttings. It can take a couple of months to grow garden-ready tomato plants from seed, but cuttings can be ready to go in a few weeks.
Yes, you could pick up some starts at a garden center, but it's hard to find sturdy ones in good condition.
Instead, buy one plant, and turn it into many. Tomatoes root very quickly and easily. All you do is snip off a sprig about 6 inches tall with several leaf-branch nodes on the stem, carefully pinch off all but the top two leaves, poke a hole in a pot of growing mix with a pencil, plant the sprig, and wait. Roots will emerge along the stem and new growth will soon appear.
If you have a robust plants — or have a friend who does — you can even use the suckers that emerge from the V where a branch meets the main stem. Pinch out the little suckers and root them as well in a potting medium — keep them moist, warm and out of direct sunlight.
If you have never rooted stem cuttings before, you will have gained not only a tomato crop but also a skill that you can now apply to other plants in your garden, both edible and ornamental. Tomato relatives such as peppers and eggplants can be similarly rooted, as can many herbs, especially those in the mint family. You'll find that many plants are tricky and idiosyncratic in their rooting requirements, so research is often needed.
One ally that will help you in this practice is a plant that's a champion among rooters, the willow. If you take a willow stem, whether a twig or a thick log, and stick it in the ground, it will take root and grow. Not only that, you can soak willow stems in water to create "willow water" and use it as a rooting stimulant for other plants.
This is possible because of a hormone willows contain called indolebutyric acid, which stimulates root growth. That and salicylic acid, which primes a plant's immune system to resist infection during the touch-and-go rooting process. Just cut young willow twigs into short pieces, soak them in a jar of water, and feed the water to your rooting plant.
Any species of willow will do, whether it's a grand weeping willow or the monstrous but beautiful black pussy willow next to my house that needs constant pruning anyway.
Though it's a great tonic, willow water is not a substitute for fertilizer. After moving your tomato starts to quart-size pots of growing mix, feed them well-diluted fish emulsion or seaweed extract, both readily available. You might even test this tip from a book called Baking Soda, Banana Peels, Baby Oil and Beyond, published by Reader's Digest:
"Hard-boiled eggs leave calcium in the cooking water, so use the liquid to water calcium-loving solanaceous garden plants."
That includes tomatoes, and I'm sure they will drink it right up.
Barbara Damrosch's latest book is The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook; her website isFourseasonfarm.com.