Growing Early Tomatoes

Learn how to get vine-ripened, beautiful, early tomatoes without a greenhouse.

| January/February 1986

What do the Kentucky Derby and the tomato have in common? That's easy: big stakes for those who come in first. Or, at times, big steaks —during my first year working at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I won a steak dinner for growing the earliest ripe tomato at the Eco-Village. Now, I admit I used devious tactics in that contest: I grew a Sub Arctic Plenty (fast-maturing but pitiful-tasting) and stressed the vine into premature production by raising it in a five-inch pot. The poor plant bore only two fruits, but as far as I was concerned, the prize dinner—and beating the other staff gardeners—was reward enough for my efforts.

You may not be planning on making any garden wagers this year yourself, but I'm sure you've tasted enough orange baseballs—excuse me, supermarket tomatoes—already this winter to be longing for that first precious vine-ripened fruit. Tomatoes are without a doubt the one garden crop worth taking the time and trouble to bring in early. And early tomato harvesting may be more than a matter of culinary craving. In some areas planning for an early payoff may mean the difference between ever tasting a real tomato and being permanently stuck with grocery store globes . . . while down in the Deep South, starting early might give you a good harvest before the weather gets too hot for the plants to set fruit. In addition, I like to start my heirloom varieties early so I can get their harvest before the summer heat and humidity promote verticillium wilt in those disease-susceptible specimens.

Whatever your reasons, the following tips should help you do the trick. Now, I'll admit that breeding a crop of super-early tomatoes will require extra horticultural effort, but, believe me, it can be done. (And you don't have to have a greenhouse, either!)

Start Tomato Seeds Indoors

The process starts in the middle of winter. Since you'll be growing plants indoors under less than optimum conditions (less light and lower temperatures), you can expect each growing stage to progress somewhat more slowly than normal. In our western North Carolina mountain climate (zone 6), I start my "super earlies" between late December and mid-January.

You'll almost certainly be starting your tomatoes from seed—what nursery carries transplants in the middle of winter? But that's all to the good, since it'll enable you to carefully select the variety you want to grow. Of course, that choice will be a matter of personal preference, but, in my opinion, if you're going to go to all the trouble of nursing a special tomato crop, you should give flavor a high priority. Thus, I wouldn't go for a supershort-season variety like Siberia: It comes in early, all right, but it doesn't taste good. On the other hand, you probably don't want to go for a long-season, giant, indeterminate specimen, either: Save the Big Boys for the main summer crop.

My own palate-pleasing choices are Small Fry VFN (60 days: widely available—actually, this good-sized bush variety is the only hybrid tomato I grow anymore), Tiny Tim (55 days), Tappy's Finest (77 days), and a compact beefsteak like Bush Beefsteak (62 days). The first two are relatively fast-growing, while the last two have larger fruits. Just grow one or two plants of each variety you pick; you'll get plenty of other tomatoes with your main crop later on .

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