If you hate settling for supermarket tomatoes with their inferior taste and quality, it’s time to start growing your own. With a bit of ingenuity and effort and these tips, you can be picking fresh ripe tomatoes in June.
Here’s how you can shorten that long stretch from the last windowsill-ripened tomatoes of fall to the first juicy and delicious vine-ripe fruits of the next summer.
Grow Early Season Varieties
Early season tomato varieties mature in less time than the main season types.
In our coastal gardens, the end of summer can be quite sudden with the arrival of wet, stormy weather. Planting early tomato varieties is a good strategy to make the most of the tomato crop by late summer. Many early varieties are determinate (bush) plants, producing most of their fruits all at once over several weeks. There are also some indeterminate (vine) types that produce fruits continually as long as the weather remains warm. It’s best to protect these early varieties from rain and overhead watering.
Here are some of the earlier varieties:
Early Girl is a hybrid that will give you a mid-sized crop of tomatoes, maturing from seed in a mere 75 days. This one is a heavy bearer, and disease resistant.
Taxi Organic is the perfect choice for short season growers and one of my favorites. It is easy to grow and widely adapted to various climates. The bushy determinate plants set fruit and mature in 65 to 70 days. The bright lemon yellow Taxi Organic tomatoes are low acid, and great for salads and salsa!
Early Cascade produces an abundant crop of bright red full-flavored fruits from early summer to the first frost. These are perfect for salads and sandwiches, but versatile enough for canning. This one is disease-resistant and matures in 55 days. It’s been bred for cooler temperatures.
General tips for growing earlier tomatoes
The first step is to choose your tomato seed varieties with care. Select one or two early-season varieties as well as other later-producing cultivars.
Planting the right cultivar can make all the difference. Most tomatoes will not set fruit when night temperatures drop below 55 degrees.
However, cold tolerant varieties have been bred to set fruit at lower temperatures. Glacier, Polar Baby, Black Krim, and Oregon Spring are hardier more cold-tolerant varieties.
Traditionally, tomato seeds are planted indoors about seven weeks before the last expected frost. You don’t want your seedlings to spend too much time indoors under less than optimal light, or they will grow tall and spindly.
Cold-resistant tomatoes can be planted out two or three weeks before regular tomatoes, so you can easily start them around ten weeks before the last spring frost date.
Germinating tomato seeds
Cover the flats or seed trays when you sow the seeds since tomatoes germinate better in dark. After the seedlings appear, place them so they get eight to twelve hours of sun each day. Select a warm spot, and turn your trays or flats so the seedlings grow straight. This turning also strengthens the main stem.
Transplant the seedlings into individual containers once they have 2 pairs of true leaves. As the weather warms, harden the seedlings by placing them outdoors for a few hours only for three or four days, bringing them inside at night. If you have access to a cold frame, it’s a great spot for hardening off your plants.
Plant the tomatoes outside in a well-warmed spot. Select a spot where there is a favorable microclimate – no wind, a wall that reflects heat, a raised bed with warmer soil, or a southern slope. A raised bed will ensure good drainage, and with full sun, your tomatoes will thrive.
Set the seedlings deeply into the soil, so much of the stem is buried. This encourages rooting along the stem, producing a stronger plant.
When the weather is continuously warmer, mulch around your tomatoes. Clear plastic mulch can warm the soil by up to 20 degrees. You can also cover the plants with row covers like the Reemay Garden Blanket for further protection for early-planted tomatoes. Make sure to remove the filmy row covers once the weather warms and blossoms start to form.
Other heat retaining ideas for growing earlier tomatoes are umbrella greenhouses, clear dome-shaped plant protectors, wire cylinders wrapped with clear plastic and even juice cans filled with water and placed between plants.
An inexpensive and reusable product called Wall-o-water is an excellent way to protect your young plants. The sun will warm the water throughout the day, and it will retain and emit the warmth during the night. Even if you only select cold-resistant cultivars, you should be able to enjoy fresh tomatoes a couple of weeks earlier.
Take the time to pre-warm the soil, select a protected planting spot and provide plant protectors for your plants, and you may enjoy several extra weeks of fresh delicious tomatoes.