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When to Plant Tomatoes in California

By Ellen Douglas ; Updated September 21, 2017

California's large size makes planning vegetable gardens challenging when you have only statewide date recommendations for sowing and transplanting warm-weather crops such as tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum). Along with acquiring temperature timetables for your part of the state, keep in mind the specific habits of tomato plants. This knowledge comes in handy if the micro-climate of your neighborhood, for example, tends to experience more cold snaps or heat spikes than the rest of the region. If you plant your tomatoes too early, they might succumb to frost or not fruit properly. Start them too late, on the other hand, and they will be reluctant to bear the flowers needed for good fruit set.

General Considerations

  • Tomato seeds are more likely to sprout when the air temperatures hover at 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This germination requirement is true of either garden-sown or indoor-started tomato seeds.  
  • Tomato plant flowers don't emerge once the temperature reaches 100 F or higher. That's important because the more profusely your tomato plants bloom, the heavier your tomato fruit crop will be.
  • During the fruiting period, tomatoes need air temperatures that don't drop below 50 to 55 F.
  • During the plants' heaviest growth period, the preferred temperature is 80 to 90 F. 

Direct Seeding

California's warm climate allows many of its home gardeners to sow seeds directly into the ground outdoors. Gardeners in interior portions of the state, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, can sow tomato seeds outdoors as early as March. Southern portions of the state along the coastline normally allow for direct seeding in April or May and Northern California in May. In the warmest parts of the state -- generally the desert valleys, however, direct seeding can happen as early as December but should be completed in March before the heat rises.

Indoor Planting

If you start your own tomato plants indoors to get a jump on the growing season, then time your seed sowing so that the resulting plants will be about 6 to 8 weeks old when seedlings and seeds normally go into the ground outdoors in your area. For Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys' growers, this means the seeds should be sown indoors from mid-January to mid-February. Southwestern California growers should plan to start indoor plants from March in warm areas all the way up to mid-June in cooler portions. If you're along the state's northern coast or interior northern sections, then sow tomato seeds indoors in March and April. In desert regions, November to February is the best time to get sowing indoors for the early planting those hot climates require.

 

About the Author

 

Ellen Douglas has written on food, gardening, education and the arts since 1992. Douglas has worked as a staff reporter for the Lakeville Journal newspaper group. Previously, she served as a communication specialist in the nonprofit field. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Connecticut.