In some neighborhoods, vegetable gardening is a competitive sport, in which neighbors vie in friendly — but intense — race to harvest the season’s first ripe and delicious tomato. The grower of the first fruit may receive a token prize, but the fact is, everyone wins. The first tomato is soon followed by tomatoes all around, and within a short time, neighbors are rivals no more.
Growing the first tomato on the block requires a bit of strategy. You have to make good choices. Tomatoes need warm weather to grow and produce fruit, so planting in winter does not hurry things along: plants perform best when daytime temperatures are between 70 and 85 degrees and nighttime temperatures remain above 55 degrees.
The earliest tomatoes grow on plants with a short transplant-to-harvest season. Well-known (and delicious) hybrids such as ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Big Boy’ need 70 days or more to produce fruit. But if you want to have the first tomatoes in the neighborhood, ‘Fourth of July’, which bears fruit just 49 days after it is planted out in the garden, is a winner. ‘Fourth of July’ is also delicious, and it continues to produce all summer long. ‘Early Girl’ (59 days) is close behind, and it is another delicious, disease-resistant, long-producing hybrid.
Cherry tomatoes are good bets: ‘Cherry Punch’ (48 days) thrives in a pot, so you can set it on a sunny deck at the first sign of spring. ‘Power Pops’ (45 days), ‘Juliet’ (60 days), and ‘Tomatoberry’ (60 days) are reliably early.
For the earliest possible tomatoes, you need both warm air and warm soil. Choose a planting spot against a south-facing wall, where the plants will benefit from radiant heat, and set them out as early as you dare: a month before your region’s last frost date is a reasonable gamble. A sheet of black plastic laid down around plants warms the soil, and products such as Wall O’ Water enclosures protect tomato plants from below-freezing temperatures. A spun-fabric row cover will also insulate plants against night frosts.
Trying to get a jump on the season is a time-honored gardening tradition, but so is having an insurance policy: keep a few plants in a cold frame or in a protected spot, in case severe weather derails your plans. Remember, your neighbors are subject to the same extremes, but if you have back-up plants, you can get right back in the game.