A gardener’s dream: a plump ripe tomato ready to harvest for the Fourth of July. That is our goal and the goal of many fellow gardeners we know! Who doesn’t love fresh cherry tomatoes right off the vine or slicing into a slicer variety tomato mid-summer? It can be a challenge to make it happen, but we like challenges. And over the years, we’ve found it takes a little bit of pre-planning, careful selecting of seeds, and requires some specialized care and maintenance to ensure an early harvest of tomatoes. Here is what you need to do!
Make a Plan
And if you want your tomatoes to be ready by that time, you have to start your tomato seedlings pronto. It can be tricky during these colder months but totally doable; it just takes some planning. Before you hurry out and buy and plant your tomato seeds, take a look at your plot and determine what areas you’ll designate for early season harvest and which areas you’ll plant your later season vegetable crops, which are generally started indoors in march. Determine how much space you have to dedicate to your early-harvest tomatoes. Ideally, pick an area of the garden that will receive the most sunlight throughout the day and allow for each tomato plant to have at least one square foot of room.
Now it’s time to choose your varieties. Look for varieties that mature in 60-70 days or shorter. We recommend Early Girl Hybrid or Bush Early Girl Hybrid Tomato as they mature in 60-63 days. As far as cherry-tomato varieties, Chocolate Cherry is a tasty dark variety taking 70 days to mature and Sungold Tomato is bright and flavorful with a remarkably short maturity period of 55-65 days.
First, set aside a space indoors where warm temperature will be consistent and set up your grow light that you plan to use during the germination period. Before you sow your seeds into your peat pots or starter pellets, prepare them by making sure they are adequately moist and placing on a heat mat to bring your soil to ideal germinating temperature. Using a soil thermometer, bring the starter plugs to a temperature between 67-75° F. Now, you can sow your seeds in the warm soil.
We highly recommend starting 2-3 times more seedlings than you will actually plant. That way you can choose the seedlings that has outperformed the others. Maintain warm temperatures until the first cotyledons poke through and turn on your grow light. At that point we recommend a period of 8-10 hours of light on and 16-14 hours of light off. We are of the philosophy that plants need a fair amount of dark time to use the energy they’ve soaked in from the light. Others believe in providing longer period of light but we’ll let you decide. Maintain this process until outside night time temperatures are consistently above 65° F.
“Hardening Off” your seedlings is one of the most important steps in having a successful plant and harvest. It is when you place your seedlings outside (during the warmest parts of the day at first) for increasing periods each day until they can be outside through the night. This process aims to avoid transplant shock, which is when the seedling or young plant suffers from exposure to the elements such as wind, rain, cold air, or chilly soil temperature—resulting plant death often times. We recommend starting with a half-hour the first day, one hour the second, 2 hours the third, and so on until they are outside through the night (place a grow cloth over the seedlings after the sun goes down to further protect them).
During this time prepare your garden bed by placing a grow cloth over the designated bed. This helps keep the soil temperature in that particular spot warmer, reducing the chance of shock when time for transplanting occurs.
Always consult your seed packets and dig the appropriate-sized hole for your seedling, placing it in and covering it with soil and gently patting it down. Keep soil bare for the while (4-5 weeks) to allow the sun to continue to warm the soil. Also, we recommend using a plant protector of some kind to protect your plants at night and to keep them warm in case of a sudden drop in temperature. Use cages and grow cloths as needed.
Check soil twice a day for moisture content. The soil should be damp to the touch but not soggy or spongey. Water only if soil feels like it is dry or beginning to dry out. Also—very important—while watering, try your best to not get water on the leaves as this can lead to some diseases. If on-going warm weather dries soil too quickly, cover soil with mulch—try about 2 inches of straw mulch for a start.
As the plant matures, the branches will stretch and eventually become heavy so a cage may become necessary especially when they form their fruits.
At this, point your job is to continually check projected weather forecasts and make adjustments when needed. For example, if rain is projected for the next few days, cover your plants by placing plastic over and around your cage and/or plant protector to keep leaves and stems as dry as possible. Cover with grow cloths if temperatures are expected to drop and so on. The bottom line is keep a close eye on all your plants and remember the basics: (a) try to keep plant and soil warm, (b) maintain soil moisture, and (c) protect plant from the elements, such as wind, rain, etc..
As long as you keep and eye on your plants from here on out, you should be able to watch them mature into the desired plump specimen you’ve been hoping for.