The Edible Garden

Short-Season Tomatoes

If you think your summers are too short, too cool or too cloudy to grow tomatoes, think again.

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Gardeners in areas with late spring frosts, cool summers or even too-hot summers reach for tomato varieties like 'Oregon Spring' that don't depend on pollination to produce fruit. — image courtesy of Tomato Fest

If you think your summers are too short, too cool or too cloudy to grow tomatoes, think again. That's the message from a host of tomato specialists who want to spread the word about short-season or early-fruiting tomatoes.

"I get calls from many people who had given up on growing tomatoes because they don't get enough sun or get frost too early and they are so excited to hear that it's possible with some of these new varieties," says Gary Ibsen of Carmel, California, who runs TomatoFest, a seed company specializing in heirloom tomatoes.

The problem many gardeners run into, Ibsen says, is trying to grow a standard tomato in a climate where growing conditions aren't right for the finicky plants. "People get disappointed and give up, thinking 'I just can't grow tomatoes here,' but most of the time that's not the case. Some of the newly introduced varieties originated in Siberia, and you can't get a shorter growing season than that."

Whether your preference is for hearty beefsteak slicing tomatoes or delicate multicolored heirlooms, chances are if you search a bit you can find one that will guarantee you vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes before the season ends. Of course, every microclimate has its particular challenges. But with all the new tomato varieties that have been discovered and developed, there are a few tomato varieties that will grow just about anywhere, and many others that are particularly suited to certain regions, weather patterns and temperature ranges.

What to look for in a short-season tomato

The challenge of growing tomatoes in an area where spring comes late or summer temperatures are cool is that most tomatoes require heat to produce the sugar that makes them sweet. And then there is the problem of pollination, which of course is necessary for a tomato plant to fruit at all.

"Tomatoes require warmer temperatures to produce pollen and pollinate," says Randy Gardner, a professor at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, North Carolina, who specializes in hybridizing tomatoes and other vegetables.

What makes some of the newly introduced varieties so different? The plants begin producing fruit without bothering to wait for the flowers to pollinate. (This quality, called by the fancy name of "parthenocarpic," also means that these tomatoes are naturally seedless, at least early in the season.) If you live in an area with unusually cool, cloudy weather, you want to look for parthenocarpic tomatoes because you'll get fruit whether the plants pollinate or not, says Jim Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and horticulture at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. One of Myers' most popular new tomatoes is a variety called Legend. "If you start it early, you can have fruit by the third week of July, and it will set fruit even in greenhouses," he says.

Oddly enough, those who live in areas with extremely hot summers, such as the Southwest, also get good results with the fastest-fruiting varieties developed for cool climes, he says. "I've heard from some people that Oregon Spring is the only tomato that will set fruit during a summer in Arizona," Myers says. The reason? Extreme heat in June and July also interferes with pollination, so growers have to stick to varieties that fruit in 55 to 65 days. Another idea to try: Plant smaller, bushy determinate tomato varieties in containers, then move them into the shade during the middle of the day.

Many of the other short-season varieties come out of Russia and other Eastern European countries, because tomatoes there naturally evolved to accommodate late snows and early frosts, Ibsen says. These new heirloom varieties — so named because they were passed on from generation to generation — have all the prized qualities of heirlooms such as unusual colors, shapes, and flavors and yet are hardy and disease resistant as well.

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