Is planting tomatoes early worth it?

Published 4:35 pm Monday, March 20, 2023

By Carrie Spry

Clark County Extension Office

Imagine this with me, please. You just sat down to enjoy the season’s first ripe, juicy tomato. You’ve worked hard in your garden this year to keep the tomato plants happy and provide for their every need. Now you are about to enjoy the literal fruits of your labor. The only thing that could make this moment any better would be the ability to say I was first. I successfully grew the first ripe tomato before my other gardening friends. Jim Bob, down the street, it’ll be another two weeks before any of his is ready. Ethel was close, but her first tomato probably won’t be ready until the week’s end. And poor Ricky had frost damage on his tomato plants from setting them out so early, so it set his plants back about 3 or 4 weeks. But I was first!

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My friends, is that you? Have you made it your personal goal to be the first to have a ripe tomato? Then join the club! But now, if you would like to have your tomato plants produce earlier in the year, there are certain things to remember. Most people trying to jump on the season set their tomatoes out early and hope they do well. Probably thinking they only have to protect them from the frost. However, that is often not a good plan, as tomatoes need specific requirements before they grow well. Those requirements are an acceptable soil temperature for root growth and an adequate air temperature for plant growth and fruit set.

Root Growth

Tomatoes need a minimum soil temperature of 55 degrees, while 60 or warmer is preferred and ideal. Soil temperatures lower than that mean the plants are now more susceptible to root rots and generally less happy. Unhappy plants take longer to establish themselves and to start setting fruit. Commercial tomato producers often use black plastic mulch to warm the soil quicker and begin planting sooner, planting thru the plastic with irrigation placed under the plastic. This is usually impractical for small-scale gardens.

Air Temperature

Plants must be protected from frost. Many of us have been in the spot of finding every bucket we own to place over our tomatoes or peppers when we are handed a late-season frost. You have to cover it at dark and also be ready to take the covering off right before the sun comes up; otherwise, you can damage the very plant you were trying to protect. But if the temperature goes below 55 degrees at night, tomato flowers may not be set. The plant is not hurt, but the blossom will often not set fruit, thus, causing delays in your first fruit.

The average Earliest Safe Planting Date for tomatoes in central Kentucky is May 10, ranging from May 5-15. How early you choose to plant yours is totally up to you. But these little nuggets of information can help you in your goal to be the first with a ripe tomato.

Contact the Clark County Cooperative Extension Office for information on this and other topics.