So how do you get the earliest tomatoes that give you bragging rights?
- You start with early varieties.
In seed catalogs, you’ll see a number after the variety name. This is the days to maturity rating and while it doesn’t translate directly to the calendar, it is a measure between different varieties of which plants will produce fruit first. So a variety such as “Ultra Sweet” at 62 days should be earlier than “Better Boy” at 72 days.
- You sow the seed indoors in the middle of February.
The soil temperature should be around 72F – 20C for good germination within a week. Sow each seed 1-inch from another. Transplant into their own container when they have 4 true leaves.
- You grow them properly under full sunlight conditions and in their individual pot at 60F. Note that too high a temperature and not enough sunlight will cause them to get leggy. This means high concentrations of grow-lights at leaf level.
- You feed them properly. Growers feed constantly with every watering but a once-a-week feeding of half-strength fish emulsion or half-strength houseplant food will keep them growing well.
- You harden them off properly by putting them out in the daytime and in at night for at least a week before planting – preferably two weeks. If you don’t harden them off – they’ll crash their growth curve and sit for a few weeks sulking.
- You feed properly, you water properly and you prune properly (see all the relevant sections).
- And you pray for sunshine and heat because nothing will bring a tomato to maturity faster than a warm, sunny summer.
- Follow those early directions and you’ll have the first and best fruit in the neighborhood (unless someone else has this ebook too of course)
- Hint: water with lukewarm water early in the season to really boost things along but don’t tell your neighbor.
And Here We Have To Take A Break and Think About This
Plastic isn’t sustainable. In other words, it’s not a great choice for our future. I rant a bit about this in the video below but bottom line – doing all the things to warm up the soil isn’t necessarily going to give you higher yields. It may give you earlier tomatoes by a few days but it may decrease harvests overall.
The short version is that warming up the soil takes care of the roots. But if you plant early, you run the risk of having your plants blossom too early. If the air temperatures are cool (50F or 10C) then the pollen goes sterile and you have blossom end rot on the first fruit truss. (A truss is what we call the clump of tomatoes)
You’ve warmed up the soil but haven’t dealt with the cool air temperatures.
For commercial growers, this makes sense. The money is made with those first expensive tomatoes. You likely pay almost as much for four tomatoes of the earliest fresh crop at a farmer’s market as you pay for a basket in September.
For home gardeners, or at least for us, we want a big harvest and if we’re a few days later than we could be, well that’s fine by us.
So – the question you have to answer is whether you’re going to be sustainable or go for that early crop.
If You Decide To Use Plastic
You can use a clear plastic mulch to warm up the soil for at least a week, preferably two, before planting. Warm soil is key to getting plants up and growing quickly.
The clear plastic mulch is removed, a black plastic mulch is laid down and the tomato transplants are planted through the black mulch.
Suggestion: If you do decide to use plastic, let me suggest you use a green garbage bag. Weight down the edges so it doesn’t blow away. When you want to plant, pick up the plastic and plants. Then use the garbage bag for garbage.
And don’t try to get all your plants early – just work on two or three. Leave the others for a regular harvest.
Better Than Plastic And Lasts Longer
You cover your plants with a row cover. This is not sustainable either but given it lasts for years, it makes more sense to use this material. It can also be used for other crops (squash etc) to help in insect control.
This gives them a measure of cold protection during the day (cool spring winds can set a plant back) as well as night time light-frost protection. This extra bit of heat retention around the plants will bring them into flower much faster than unprotected plants. As an aside, it also protects them from insects. I note that birds will try to get under this row cover so be prepared to seal the edges very well.
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