How to Enjoy Fresh Tomatoes Up to 6 Months a Year
Would you like to enjoy sweet, juicy, home-grown tomatoes for more than a few weeks in late summer? It's not difficult to plan your garden so that you can enjoy fresh tomatoes from mid-summer through mid-winter!
Follow these three simple steps to extend your tomato season as long as possible:
1) Plant ultra-early, cold-tolerant varieties inside water cloches 4-6 weeks before your last spring frost
2) Plant main tomato crops outdoors after your last spring frost
3) Plant storage varieties of tomatoes in mid-summer, timed to barely start ripening at first fall frost.
Be sure to schedule planting your tomato seeds 5-6 weeks before you plan to transplant the plants into your garden.
These varieties usually ripen in 55-65 days, and often tolerate cooler growing conditions than regular tomato varieties. You can plant them outdoors after your last spring frost, and they'll ripen 10-30 days before most of your mid to late-season tomato varieties. However, if you want to harvest the earliest ripe tomato possible, plant these ultra-early tomatoes inside water cloches (such as Wall-o-Water) 4-6 weeks before your last spring frost.
Fill these cloches with water and set them in place in your garden two weeks before you plan to plant your early tomatoes. This will help to warm up the soil. Unfortunately, even though you'll be planting the tomatoes 4-6 weeks early, they won't ripen tomatoes that much earlier. Your plants will still be dealing with soil and weather that is much cooler than normal, so you will probably harvest ripe tomatoes only about two or three weeks earlier than the same variety planted outdoors after frost.
It's up to you to decide if the extra effort of using water cloches will be worth picking tomatoes in early to mid-summer, which would be 3-6 weeks before most main crop tomato varieties.
There are a number of ultra-early tomato varieties available. Here are two examples:
Beaverlodge series – 55 days, extremely compact determinate type, very productive, excellent flavor, 1½ – 2½ inch fruit
Stupice – 60-65 days, indeterminate vining type that can produce the whole summer, great flavor, 2 inch fruit
Main Crop Tomatoes
These varieties include mid to late-season tomatoes, which usually require 75-95 days to ripen fruit, from the date of transplanting. These tomatoes can provide you with fresh fruit from late summer until fall frost.
There are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from – of all colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors. The determinate bush varieties ripen most of their fruit within a short time – which is great for canning large amounts of tomatoes. Indeterminate vining varieties can continue to produce and ripen fruit as long as the weather and disease pressures allow.
Although you can pick most tomatoes when green, and they will ripen on your windowsill or kitchen counter, they usually only last a few short weeks after harvest. If you would like to eat fresh tomatoes for a few months after harvest, grow the varieties that have been bred to be good keepers.
Storage-type tomatoes need to be planted in mid-summer, about 12 weeks before your first fall frost. (If you live in an area with cool summers, plant them a few weeks earlier than that.) You want these storage tomatoes to just start ripening fruit at the time of your first fall frost. After you pick both the green and partially ripe tomatoes, you should store them in single layers, not touching each other. The fruit should be kept around 55-75 degrees, and out of direct sunlight.
They will gradually ripen over a 4-6 week time period, and can be stored for another 6-12 weeks. This will often allow you to enjoy fresh tomatoes as late as February. Be sure to check them periodically for any signs of decay. Don't expect them to taste as good as summer-harvested fruit, but many people prefer them to the taste of winter store-bought tomatoes.
There are several storage-type varieties available, including Longkeeper, Golden Treasure, Ruby Treasure, and Red October. Most storage tomatoes are about 2½ – 3 inches in size.
You can find sources for various tomato varieties at Mother Earth News Seed and Plant Finder. By using this 3-part planting schedule in my climate, with a frost-free growing season running around May 15th – October 15th, I can enjoy ripe tomatoes from late June through early February – well over 6 months!