In almost any climate, the best time to start most tomato seeds is six to eight weeks before your average last spring frost. This tried-and-true schedule provides juicy tomatoes by high summer, but many gardeners and cooks become impatient for sun-ripened tomatoes earlier. You can satisfy this premature tomato craving by learning how to grow extra-early tomatoes. By choosing varieties that mature quickly, starting those seeds a month ahead of your typical schedule — 10 to 12 weeks before your last spring frost — and then giving the plants special care, you’ll harvest tomatoes at the beginning of summer, when main-crop tomatoes are only beginning to bloom.
Most tomato varieties thrive in warm soils, so plan to grow your earliest tomatoes in containers for best results. In spring, when the plants start spending time outdoors, their roots will stay warmer in containers than they would if planted in the ground. You won’t need huge vessels because the stress from slightly cramped roots will push quick-maturing tomatoes to produce flowers and fruits in less time than usual. A 3-gallon bucket or a 12-inch-diameter pot or hanging basket will be about right for each plant. Ideally, each container should have a lip or handle for easy lifting.
In the garden, indeterminate varieties that produce for many weeks are usually best, but certain compact, determinate varieties will provide you with more tomatoes sooner. Choose carefully — some early determinate varieties have much better flavor than others! The following open-pollinated, determinate tomato varieties have well-deserved reputations for delivering rich, main-season tomato flavor in record time:
‘Sophie’s Choice’ is a cool-tolerant heirloom tomato from Edmonton, Alberta, that produces round, red slicers on compact, 24-inch plants. Fruit size varies from egg-sized to baseball proportions, and the flavor of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is mildly sweet with a pleasing balance of tangy aromatics.
‘Glacier,’ a smaller, red slicer, comes from Sweden and has potato-leaf foliage and a bushy growth habit. The bulky ‘Glacier’ tomato plant grows to 30 inches tall, and needs staking to support its concentrated crop.
‘Whippersnapper’ is a pink-red cherry tomato with a quirky growth habit. Short side branches spread out horizontally, making the ‘Whippersnapper’ tomato ideal for containers or hanging baskets. In Canada, this variety has gained a following after winning a race for first ripe tomato of the season.
Do not pinch or prune these or other quick-maturing determinate tomato varieties, because all stem tips will bear flowers and fruits, and then the plants will decline. You can try growing exceptionally early indeterminate varieties, such as ‘Stupice’ (small slicer) or ‘Bloody Butcher’ (large cherry), but their sprawling growth habits make them difficult to handle in containers. Growing these types outdoors in plastic-wrapped cages is a better bet.
The Right Light
Tomatoes are full-sun plants, so indoor starts need supplemental light to grow fast and strong. Fluorescent lights are cheap and easy to rig up, but they’re not all alike. To learn about the newest generation of energy-efficient grow lights, see Best Grow Lights for Starting Seeds Indoors.
Keep your lights on for about 14 to 18 hours per day. You can use a timer, or operate the light manually. Pause to blow on the plants twice a day — these little puffs of wind will enhance the sturdiness of the growing stems.
Planting, Care and Feeding
Use a fresh bag of seed-starting mix to get your seeds going in small containers, such as bedding plant cell packs or 4-ounce paper cups. After the plants each produce one true leaf and you can see white roots in the drainage holes, gently repot the plants into 4-inch containers. After three weeks or so, when the plants’ roots have filled the 4-inch pots, shift the plants into their permanent containers — 12-inch-diameter pots or baskets, 3-gallon black nursery liners, or plastic buckets with plenty of drainage holes.
You can start with any good commercial potting soil for growing early tomato varieties, and then mix in up to one-third part compost. Watch plants to make sure they’re growing steadily, and feed them with a diluted, liquid organic fertilizer if new growth stalls. Be ready to step up feeding when the weather gets warm enough to move the plants outdoors. Dry organic fertilizers are easy to sprinkle over the soil’s surface before thorough waterings. With container tomatoes, you’ll need to be extra-diligent about watering; strive to keep the soil lightly moist at all times.
On sunny spring days with temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, move the plants to a spot outdoors that gets sun, but little or no wind. The container tomatoes will probably be too large for a cold frame, but you can make a high-profile mini-greenhouse in minutes by turning a small table upside down and attaching sheet plastic to the legs to form an enclosure. If needed, you can shroud the setup with row cover for additional insulation. Bring the plants inside at night and during periods of cold, damp weather, keeping them in your brightest window.
As soon as your early tomatoes produce flowers, enhance pollination by blowing gently on flower clusters or touching the back of a vibrating toothbrush to blossom-bearing stems. You’ll want to mimic the buzzing action of pollinating bees, which, according to the Xerces Society, can increase fruit set by approximately 45 percent.
If you choose quick-maturing tomato varieties and start growing them in containers 10 to 12 weeks before your last spring frost, then you’ll enjoy delicious homegrown harvests weeks before your neighbors even pick their first fruits.
Check Out Our Brand New Tomato Chooser App
Tomato lovers, get ready to have some fun! We're excited to announce our new Tomato Chooser iPhone app, which allows you to browse and sort through 333 tomato varieties. You can filter by color, size, time to maturity, disease resistance and more — making your discovery of the perfect varieties for your garden a snap. You can even see which varieties have exceptional flavor, according to tomato experts. Click on any tomato you're interested in to see its profile and photo. You're bound to discover new favorites and become totally tomato-obsessed after spending time with this app. Download the app for only $1.99.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.