Bring Tomatoes to Your Spring Garden

Use the right variety, timing, and careful planning to plant tomatoes in your garden late in the spring.

| Winter 2012/2013

Many home gardeners seek bragging rights for bringing in the first ripe tomatoes of the season, but very few have a detailed plan for doing it. Here’s what you need to know to bring in the earliest possible tomatoes in your region, in a way that requires the least work. In fact, in less than an afternoon, you can create a tomato patch that will swamp you with fruit all season long without weeding, or even very much watering.

Tomatoes are among the highest yielding of all our garden crops, but the earliest tomatoes—those that grow and produce well when the spring weather is still cool—are not the most high-yielding types. So we need a strategy.

Let’s start with the soil. A very rich soil — that is, one with an abundance of nitrogen from compost or manures — tends to flush tomato plants into lots of stem and leaf growth, but not so much into producing tomatoes. In trials at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, we grew tomatoes in pure compost, in soil under turf that was removed, and in unimproved field soil that had been in continuous corn crops where agricultural chemicals had been used for many years. The tomatoes produced the heaviest crops in the soil that had been under the turf. Circles of turf grass were removed and tomato plants put into the exposed soil underneath. This seemed to suit the tomato plants best, prompting them into good, compact growth with lots of fruit.

If you have an area of your garden that’s 12 feet by 8 feet (96 square feet) and covered in turf grass, lift six 3-foot circles of turf and shake the soil from their roots back into the exposed soil, making two rows of three circles each. If the soil is bare or weedy, remove any weed roots and improve the soil nutrition with about a square foot of good compost per circle. This is where your tomato garden will go.


You are initially after the earliest possible tomatoes in your area. And so, you need seed of early varieties—those that will mature fruit when other varieties are hanging out, waiting for warm weather. But if you’re like me, you’ll also want a variety that will produce pounds upon pounds of tomatoes for sauce during the warm summer months.

First, you need to understand the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. Determinate plants set a large crop of tomatoes and then stop growing. Indeterminate plants keep producing new stems throughout the growing season, right up to frost, with trusses of flowers followed by fruit emerging from the leaf axils of those stems. For our earliest tomatoes, we’ll choose one determinate variety. The other variety in our six-plant tomato patch will be indeterminate. We will also grow an extra indeterminate plant in a large pot to replace our earliest tomato after it sets its crop of fruit. Here are some varieties I recommend:

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