When I sell the tomato plants at the Farmers’ markets in early spring, customers are always curious about which tomato varieties are the earliest to produce and what they can do to hurry it along. Here are some tips that will lead to an early harvest of tomatoes, whether they be heirlooms or hybrids.
Criteria for Earliest Tomatoes
In general, there are four major criteria that determine whether you will have “relatively” early tomatoes, no matter where you live. Criteria includes:
- which variety you choose,
- the size of the seedling that you buy and the size of the pot it is in; if you buy a seedling that is already showing some fruit, you will probably get earlier tomatoes, but you won’t get as many over the season. You also want to avoid tomatoes that have outgrown their pots as they will most likely be rootbound and won’t produce well.
- whether the soil has warmed up enough to plant the seedling without it getting stunted
- whether the ambient temperature is warm enough for the seedling to take off (they prefer 75 degrees as a magic number)
What do Maturity Dates Mean?
Most seed catalogs offer descriptions of the growth characteristics, including a number signifying the “days to maturity”. I always hesitate to tell people to follow those numbers.
In my experience, the number is only meaningful on a relative scale, and people tend to treat numbers as absolutes. One variety is going to be earlier than another variety, for example, if the number of days to maturity is less, so you can use these numbers to compare different varieties.
Rarely however, do the tomatoes follow these maturity dates with any absolute precision.
Smaller Tomatoes are Usually First to Produce:
The first tomatoes to appear in any given season tend to be the smaller tomatoes, like the cherries. I have also had reliable earliness with the Bloody Butcher variety of heirloom (my pick for the most flavorable early tomato that is not a cherry).
I have tried Manitoba, Oregon Spring, Stupice, and several other early heirloom varieties, which all have great flavor for early tomatoes, but none of these have been as early as Bloody Butcher. A new early heirloom tomato I trialed recently was the Raspberry Lyanna.
It was the earliest of all of my tomatoes (July 10th in Minnesota), and it had none of the typical heirloom imperfections (green shoulders, cracking, etc .), but the flavor was fairly mild. My taste runs toward the bolder, higher acid tomatoes so this was not one of my favorites for flavor.
The other early tomatoes include the cherry tomatoes, and you can get quite a range of cherry tomato varieties these days. Look for the varieties that mention “crack resistant” or “no cracking” to have the most success when they are ripe and sweetest.
Black Mauri is a dark plum variety that ripens around the same time as the cherries, but has a much deeper flavor profile than a cherry.
Principe Borghese is the most prolific of all the small tomatoes. It is determinate however, so you will get a lot of tomatoes over a 2-4 week period and then they will stop producing, while indeterminates will produce fewer tomatoes but they will produce until frost.
Principe Borghese “go-to’ tomato for drying. It has that bolder flavor that you would expect with an Italian tomato or a beefsteak tomato and the flavor is concentrated when dried.
Pro Tip: Growing tomatoes in pots can result in earlier tomatoes (but the harvest will not be as prolific)
Early Varieties of Heirloom Tomatoes
Of course the criteria for earliest tomatoes also includes which variety you choose to grow. Some varieties have been hybridized to produce early in the season and some heirlooms are naturally early.
Here is a range of early varieties grouped by color:
Early “Black” Varieties:
Following the first flush of the smaller tomatoes were the “black” tomatoes (they are called black tomatoes and are typically of Russian origin, but they are really a dark purple or dark pink).
The black tomatoes were the first of the larger, main-season tomatoes to appear, starting with Paul Robeson. Carbon, Black Krim, Vorlon, were 2-3 days later than Mr. Robeson.
I love the rich, complex taste of these black tomatoes, and last year I found Carbon to have the deepest flavor. Usually the main-season tomatoes develop their unique flavors more as the season goes on, so I will wait until late August-early September to do a true taste test between the black varities.
Early Orange, Yellow & Striped Varieties:
On the heels of the black tomatoes were the yellow-gold tomatoes and some of the striped tomatoes, including Juane Flammee, Manyel, Limmony, Striped Roman, Tigerella and Gold Medal.
The larger orange and yellow tomatoes tend to ripen later in the growing season. This would include Persimmon, Kelloggs, Hughs, Hillbilly, Mr. Stripey, and White Queen. Remember, “in general” the larger the tomato, the later it ripens.
The Green Zebra variety is a an exception to this rule. It tends to be a late ripening tomato, even though its size is relatively small.
Early Red and Pink Heirloom Varieties:
As noted above, the earliest of all of my tomatoes in many years was the Bloody Butcher (a red) and the Raspberry Lyanna (a pink).
The larger main-season red & pink heirlooms that are “relatively” early include Caspian Pink, Prudens Purple, and Aussie.
Brandywine is popular but tends to be late and not too prolific. I enjoy Caspian Pink as an alternative. Caspian Pink has the same flavor profile as Brandywine, but is earlier and more prolific.
A final note would be to test these varieties in your own microclimate. As noted at the beginning of this post, there are many variables that can determine how early your heirloom tomatoes will be bringing you joy.
Happy Trails and May Your Growing Season be Long and Plentiful!