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Plan Ahead for Early Tomatoes

To harvest tomatoes well before your neighbors do, plan ahead! You'll need to start tomato seeds in February and then follow a few easy steps.

Of all the fruits and vegetables gardeners can grow, everyone loves tomatoes. If you want early tomatoes, try 'Northern Delight', 'Glacier' and 'Beaverlodge', determinate tomato varieties that bear in 55 days. Start them indoors from seed in small paper cups with bottom heat in February. Artificial light is preferable too, unless you have a very sunny window. Once the seedlings have four true leaves, nick off the lowest leaves (at this point the cotyledons, or seed leaves) and transplant them to larger cups, burying the stem to within an inch of the lowest leaves. The buried portion of the stem will sprout roots. Repeat the leaf nicking and transplanting process with ever-larger cups until the plant is a small tuft of leaves and a huge root ball. It’s exactly the opposite of what you get at the garden center (lots of stem and leaves on a small root ball).

Territorial Seed Company is one source for early tomato varieties. (See links to other mail-order seed sources.)

Three or four weeks before your last frost date, in preparation for moving the plants outside, dig a hole 18 inches across and 24 inches deep. Place a mixture of fresh kitchen scraps and poultry manure, blood meal or other high-nitrogen sources in the bottom of the hole to a depth of one foot. This mixture sends up warmth as it decays. Fill the rest of the hole with good garden soil. Then plant the giant root ball in the good garden soil.

(Read about tomatoes for small spaces.)

Set three one-gallon plastic jugs, filled with water, around the plant to absorb daytime heat and give it back on cold nights. Set a wire cage over the jugs and plant. Wrap the cage with clear plastic and cover the top with more clear plastic weighted with a small plank so it won’t blow away. Remove the top plastic on warm days so the plant doesn’t overheat.

If your last frost date is May 15 (USDA Zone 6) and you planted on April 15, count 55 days to June 10. While your neighbors are just planting spindly tomato plants from the garden center, you’ll be harvesting tomatoes! (Don't forget to save some of their seeds for next year.) No gloating allowed, though. Well, maybe a little.

Read about two tomato diseases: late blight and blossom-end rot.


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