Gardening and bragging just don’t seem compatible. Quietly enjoying the warm sunshine while digging the soil, gently planting flowers and vegetables while listening to the birds chirp doesn’t mesh with boasting about how good we are.

There’s an exception, though. The neighborhood gardener who beats the rest of us to the first decent-sized ripe tomato deserves bragging rights, and the rest of us gladly give our kudos. After all, growing an early radish is child’s play compared to the holy grail of all vegetables: the first ripe tomato of the season.

The speed at which tomatoes grow and ripen can be hastened with the following tips.

  • Tomatoes are a warm-season crop. Everything that can be done to encourage warmth of both air and soil will hasten growth and yield.
  • When deciding which tomato varieties to plant, check the tag for days to maturity, which is an average indicator of the time from transplanting into the garden until first harvest. The listed days aren’t from seeding, but rather garden transplanting.
  • Early tomatoes are listed as 55 to 65 days from transplanting to ripe fruit, such as Early Girl, Park’s Whopper and Better Bush. Midseason, main-crop tomatoes are 68 to 78 days as in Celebrity, Big Beef, Beefy Boy, Sheyenne, Superfantastic and Mountain Spring. Late-ripening types list maturity days of 80 to 110, which includes many Beefsteak types as well as some of the heirloom varieties.
    Check plant labels for days to maturity to select early, midseason or late types. David Samson / The Forum
    Check plant labels for days to maturity to select early, midseason or late types. David Samson / The Forum
  • Combine early, midseason and late types for season-long production.
  • Check tags for the terms determinate or indeterminate. Determinate types grow to a certain plant size, then ripen fruit in a concentrated time span, which is handy when desiring a larger quantity of fruit for processing or canning at one time. Growth habit is more bushlike. Indeterminate types produce vines all season, and cages or stakes are necessary for their sprawling habit. Fruit ripening is less consolidated but spread over a longer time frame.
  • When shopping for tomato plants, look for rich green color and stocky stems.
  • Tomatoes are best grown in full, all-day sunshine. If that’s not an option, six hours of direct sun is considered a minimum.
  • Newly planted tomatoes must have warmth. Frost protection isn’t the only temperature-related issue. The roots of tomato transplants won’t grow until soil temperature reaches about 55 to 60 degrees. If planted in cold soil, tomato transplants can be permanently damaged. By May 20-25, air and soil temperatures are usually satisfactory for quick tomato plant takeoff.
  • Plant a tomato or two in the warm microclimate of your home’s sunny south side for faster production.
  • Soil can be warmed early in the garden using clear plastic as a soil mulch to capture the greenhouse solar heating effect. Weight the edges with soil and cut an "X" in the center at planting time. The plastic mulch can even be laid down a week or two before planting to kick-start soil warmth.
    Clear plastic can be used as a soil-warming mulch to speed tomato growth. David Samson / The Forum
    Clear plastic can be used as a soil-warming mulch to speed tomato growth. David Samson / The Forum
  • Before planting, “harden off” tomato plants in a wind-protected area outdoors for seven days. Gradually expose to full sunshine and breeze.
  • Plant tomatoes deeply because roots will form along the buried stem, making a stronger plant that’s less exposed to wind whipping. Remove lower leaves first.
  • Ideal plant spacing is 24 to 36 inches apart. If cages or stakes are planned, the closer spacing can be used.
  • Water-soluble “starter fertilizer” supplies nutrition for faster takeoff.
  • Plants can be protected from chilly air temperatures with clear plastic bottomless jugs, hotcaps or other protective devices, such as the “Wall-O-Water” circular water-filled plastic tent.
  • I’ll share one last secret. Early blossoms often drop without setting fruit when night temperatures drop below 50 or 55 degrees. A naturally occurring plant hormone called “Blossom Set,” sold by garden centers, greatly aids fruit set on early blossoms.

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Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.