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GARDENING | IN THE GARDEN

The Tomato Challenge: Get the Earliest Fruit

March 02, 1997|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

OK, maybe it was the weather last year that allowed me to have ripe tomatoes on Memorial Day.

"I think it was just an early year for tomatoes," Jim Holley of Torrance said last year via e-mail. "I plant 'Early Girl' each year, and it usually does not produce until late June to July 4. This year I had the first on June 1. Dang, they are good."

Linda Chisari wrote from Del Mar: "I too began picking tomatoes on May 25." When she wrote in June, she was actually getting fewer tomatoes than in May, "which suggests that the warm temperatures were at least as important as the varieties." It was a warm, fogless spring.

Last year I planted 'Early Girl' in late February in what I thought was a special spot that would give me extra-early fruit. I picked a sheltered, warm piece of ground against a south-facing wall of the house, looking for maximum heat and light in my cool, somewhat coastal West Los Angeles garden.

By the end of April, plants were 4 feet tall; they had big green fruit by May 1, with fully ripe tomatoes on Memorial Day. I thought it quite an achievement.

Ingrid Elsel in Ventura said she tried something similar: "I planted my tomatoes against a south-facing garage wall this time and have had ripe tomatoes for weeks" she wrote in June.

"I imagine this is due to our wonderful warm spring weather," she said. "We'll have to do this again next year and test our skills."

*

So maybe it was the weather, but maybe it was that special south-facing spot. I'm convinced that location has a lot to do with getting early tomatoes, especially for those who garden near the coast.

Daryl Cella in San Pedro wrote to say, "I garden near the coast and have been able to bring in ripe tomatoes around Memorial Day most years."

"My usual successes are from plants I put in the ground in February or March," Cella said. "These are planted next to a south-facing concrete-block wall painted white."

So he too has found a special south-facing spot.

In Northridge, Ernie Schroer grows tomatoes year-round against the south wall of his house. "The microclimate is very different there," he said.

He's already planted seeds this month, in the ground where they are to grow, and expects tomatoes in about three months.

In his favored location and climate--where orange groves grew--he manages to harvest tomatoes in February:

"In late February, I picked 10 pounds of tomatoes one afternoon from four plants."

He grows 'Carmello,' a tasty French variety from Shepherd's, and sent along a photo of a plate full of tomatoes, with a February photo date-stamp in the corner for convincing proof. These he planted in early fall, but that's another story.

Now is the time to try putting in plants of an early variety. 'Early Girl' is the most common, at virtually all nurseries.

Chisari had luck with several others that actually ripened before 'Early Girl.' She planted 'Stupice,' a Czech variety gaining popularity in California; 'Enchantment,' a prolific egg-shaped tomato; and 'Sun Gold.' All ripened before 'Early Girl,' though by just days.

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Morris Cutler tried two new early varieties, the tall 'Oregon Spring' and the short, bushy 'Burpee's Early Pick.' Both had nice crops but were later than 'Early Girl.' Seed catalogs are full of new early varieties for the adventuresome, including 'Northern Exposure,' 'Early Cascade' and 'Fourth of July.'

In Pasadena, Jill Polsby even starts 'Better Boy'--which is not an early variety but happens to be her favorite--"no later than Feb. 10." She has fruit forming by May in her special spot along a south-facing wall.

Find your spot in the garden and make sure it stays sunny all day. If it's against a south-facing, light-colored wall, the plants will be protected from cold north winds and Santa Anas and will get additional reflected heat and light.

If you don't have a handy wall, just make sure the tomatoes get a full day of sun. Dottie and Bill Philles managed to get tomatoes by June 4 from plants that sit in the middle of a community garden in Torrance, only two miles from the beach and unprotected from chilly ocean winds, though they lost about half the plants to the elements.

Dig homemade compost or some organic fertilizer into the soil. Remember to plant deep, removing the bottom set of leaves and burying the plant right up to the next set. Plants will make roots all along the buried stem. Water thoroughly but not too often, especially during the next few months. Tomato roots go deep, and there's lots of moisture down there.

It's fun to see how others grow their tomatoes, and Cella had an interesting method: "I use a posthole digger to make a hole deep enough to plant the seedlings up to the top few leaves, removing all others.

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