The Great Tomato RaceFollow these guidelines to ripen the earliest tomato in your neighborhood.
Variety Selection and Seed StartingSelect an early variety -- such as 'Siberia', 'Santiam' or other tomato known to set fruit well in cool weather.
Plant the seeds indoors 10 to 12 weeks or more before the average last spring frost date.
Repot the seedlings into a deep container when they are three or four inches high. Repot a second time when the plants are 8 to 10 inches high.
Moving Them OutdoorsHarden off the plants well -- at least 10 days. You should try to get the plants in the ground two or three weeks before the average last frost date, so plan your hardening period accordingly.
Choose a sunny section of the garden for your tomatoes. Till or spade the soil there deeply, mixing in a generous amount of fertilizer, compost or manure. If possible transplant on a cloudy day. In sunny weather, try to wait until late afternoon or evening.
If you transplant according to the trench method, the roots will be near the surface. If you set the plant in the ground vertically, keep the roots close to the surface by not planting them deeper than before, so they can warm up. Soak the area after transplanting. Don't use any mulch except black or IRT plastic.
Keeping Them WarmUse some kind of heat-gathering technique -- such as hotcaps or Wall O'Waters, or circling the plants with black felt roofing paper or with an old tire. The more heat you draw to the plant, the sooner the harvest.
It's vital to use windbreaks and frost protection devices such as hot caps, paper bags or bushel baskets.
On-Going CareSidedress the plants with a balanced fertilizer when the plant has blossomed.
Be sure the plants get enough water and watch out for signs of insect or disease damage.
Root-prune a couple of tomato plants when they have formed three or four clusters of tomatoes. This will hasten ripening.
Before harvesting your first vine-ripened tomato -- weeks before your neighbors -- ask them over to witness the event and collect your bets right on the spot!
This article is a part of our Vegetable Gardening Guide for Tomatoes / Getting Started.