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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The experts' top picks

Here are a dozen of the best early-season and cool-climate tomatoes:

'Anna Russian'. Brought to Oregon by a Russian immigrant generations ago. Pinkish-red, heart-shaped fruits are very early, large and juicy; vines are hardy. Indeterminate. 65-70 days.

Buckbee's New 50 Day — image courtesy of Tomato Fest

'Buckbee's New 50 Day'. Good yields of great tasting 4-oz. red round fruit. Both cold and heat tolerant. Indeterminate. 55 days.

'Gold Nugget'. An early golden cherry tomato; produces sweet flavorful crack-resistant fruit. Determinate. 60 days.

'Legend'. Very large, glossy red fruit; very early and hardy; resistant to late blight fungus, the bane of cool and rainy climates. Determinate. 68 days.

'Oregon Spring'. Big red fruit with good flavor. One of the earliest of all, plants are resistant to both cool and hot temperatures. Seedless (parthenocarpic) compact determinate. 58 days.

'Northern Lights' – Tender, early 3-1/2-inch, round, yellow-orange beefsteak with red highlights, intense flavor. Hot-weather tolerant; bears till frost. Indeterminate. 56 days.

'San Francisco Fog'. Produces clusters of round, smooth, red fruit with good flavor. Well adapted to cool, wet areas where grey skiesmay cause tomatoes not to set their fruit. Indeterminate. 70 days.

—image courtesy of Tomato Fest — image courtesy of Tomato Fest

'Siletz'. Deep red slicer; one of the earliest producers and king of cooler climates; produces well in hot climates as well. Determinate. 52 days.

Stupice'. Early and dependable, popular in the Northwest and in areas with hot summers. Firm, juicy, small to medium size fruit; three- to four-foot bush with unusual potato like foliage. Indeterminate. 60 days.

'Sunset's Red Horizon Huge'. Red, five-inch, meaty, heart-shaped fruits. One of the first varieties to produce, and frost-resistant as well. Indeterminate. 69 days.

'Tobolsk'. 100-year-old heirloom from the Ural mountains of Russia. Sweet three-inch, light yellow to orange fruit with excellent acid balance; Not as early but ripens in cool weather. Indeterminate. 80-85 days.

'Valencia Heirloom'. from Maine. Round, 10-ounce, orange fruits with rich flavor. Good choice for cooler growing areas. Indeterminate. 76 days.

Tips for speedy tomato growing in short-season areas

The most important step in making sure you don't spend your summer fruitlessly nurturing your tomato plants (pun intended) is to choose your varieties wisely. Before you head out to your local nurseries, spend some time perusing seed catalogs and scouting varieties that seem likely to do well in your area. But if you get a late start or your selection is limited, there are also plenty of things you can do to help your tomatoes get the best start possible:

  • Start seeds indoors or in a greenhouse – this can give you a headstart of many weeks.
  • Extend your season with cold frames, heat mats and other tools.
  • In a cool climate or a cold spring, plant tomatoes on the south side of the house protected from wind.
  • Mulch when planting; it raises soil temperature and helps dry out soil too.
  • Protect tomato plants from heavy rains, which increase the chances of blight.
  • Plant a variety of different plants, preferably some that are determinate and some indeterminate. The name determinate means what it says – determinate plants grow to a pre-determined height then stop, flower and fruit. What this means is that determinate tomatoes are the earliest to fruit, but you tend to get a bumper crop all at once and then no more. Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing right up until frost hits, setting fruit as they grow. The trailing foliage can keep the soil cool and delay ripening, so stake up branches to encourage fruit to ripen earlier. If you want to have tomatoes from mid-summer through early fall, you need to plant both types. (Some experts claim that indeterminate tomatoes taste better, but this could be argued forever; it's true, however, that most heirloom varieties are indeterminate.)

    Final Thoughts

    The pleasure of biting into a ripe, homegrown tomato should never be denied to any determined gardener, so if you live —and garden — in an area with unusual climate or weather challenges, be sure to consult with your local nurseries, or check out the resources offered by nearby agricultural and master gardener programs. Specialized seed companies based in areas with similar climates to yours should be able to suggest varieties to try. Above all, don't be afraid to experiment.

    "Set aside part of your garden to experiment with and try out different types," says Ibsen. "If there's a kind of tomato that intrigues you, don't let the 'rules' stop you; see if you can make it work. That's one of the adventures of growing tomatoes."

  • Melanie Haiken

    Melanie Haiken is a freelance writer and gardener who lives with her two daughters in San Rafael, California. She contributes regularly to Health and Business 2.0 magazines.

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