Early Tomatoes - Tips for Harvesting Early Tomatoes This Spring
Home Grown Tomatoes
Getting Started Early
We all get the urge to try and get a jump on starting warm weather plants before it's really due time. Getting those tomato plants in the ground early somehow just makes us feel like spring is really here, and we've beaten Mother Nature at her game. At the same time, we know that it's way too easy to get those tomato plants started and then experience the heartbreak of a late frost that will do the plants in.
Here are a some suggestions of things you can do to get started safely, and be the first to get those early spring tomatoes out of your garden.
Starting Tomatoes in Colder Weather
It's important to choose a good variety to get early tomato production. There are many types of tomato plants that have been bred to do well in colder weather. This means they will be a little more frost tolerant, but just as importantly they will usually set fruit in colder weather as well. Polar Baby and Polar Beauty are a couple of examples of cold weather tomatoes. Make sure you check your growing zone on the back of the seed package to coordinate with your area.
There are two basic approaches to starting tomatoes in colder weather. Since tomatoes are not cold hardy like lettuce or radishes, we need to take care they are not exposed to frost. One way is to isolate a few plants in a favorable growing environment like a container of some sort. The alternative is to plant the tomatoes in the garden, and then to improve the growing conditions around the plants to make them more robust in the colder temperatures of early spring.
Hanging Tomato Planters
Container Grown Tomatoes
This is probably the more robust approach, but practically speaking this is going to be limited to a few plants that are the early tomato candidates.
The most inexpensive approach is probably to use one of the upside down tomato planters like the Topsy Turvy. Once of the advantages to these is that if there is a hard freeze you can simply move the planter to a place like the garage or basement that will protect the plants from those freezing temperatures, and then to move it back when things warm up. In addition, you can hang it in a place where it will be in full sunlight most of the day, and because the soil bag is exposed to the sun it will warm quickly and give the tomato plants a growth boost. It's not uncommon for plants in these hangers to bear fruit two weeks before similar plants in the ground because of the additional warmth and sunlight to be had.
For larger plants a container on the ground like the EarthBox planter is another alternative. It has casters so it can be moved in cold weather as well, but can also handle larger plants because of its size.
Wall O Water getting some early spring action
Wall O Water
We have used these for several years when we get the plants out too early. They work very well and give us the extra jump we were looking for early spring tomatoes.
Protecting Tomato Plants in the Garden
In the garden a couple of other techniques can be put to use.
Protective cloches, or as they are often called, Wall o Waters, can do a great job of protecting young tomato plants and warming them quickly. They take advantage of the "thermal mass" of the water, which simply put says that the water in the tubes absorbs the heat of the day, and then at night will help keep the tomato plants warmer. This fights off not only the threat of frost, but I've seen them protect tomato plants through and ice storm.
Coupled with this you can use some mulch under the tomato plants. A dark color is good as it will absorb the heat of the sun. One very popular item these days are the red mulches. Not only do these heat the soil, but the red light that is reflected in the the part of the light spectrum that tomato plants can use effectively, so the reflected light helps the tomato plants grow more quickly.
Use one or more of these techniques, and you may find you are the first in your neighborhood to be harvesting tomatoes fresh from your spring garden.