You know the type: the fellow who gets the first ripe tomatoes on the block. He is strong and silent, a bit distant, and evasive about his gardening methods. He won't even tell you when he plants his tomatoes.
"We each have our ways," one steady winner of the trophy said to me the other day, "and please don't use my name. Your way is probably as good as mine."
But no matter what you tell him later about the wonderful tomatoes you just started getting, he is sure to tell you that he began his harvest two weeks earlier.
"I kind of like to start picking them early," he says. And he doesn't even look sly.
This year, with all the unseasonal cold weather and the rains, those who have postponed planting their tomatoes may be better off than those who rushed to get them established.
If you plant this weekend--and you have the prerequisites of full sun and a rich, well-drained soil--you may still qualify in the race for the earliest ripe tomato. And you will improve your odds by buying stocky, sturdy, healthy seedlings, or by spending a few dollars on a foot-long tomato raised in a large container.
"It doesn't matter how early you plant your tomatoes," says Howard Wilburn, a biscuit salesman who after his retirement some years ago returned to the soil, an acre and a half of it in Seat Pleasant, Md. "They won't take off until it's really warm."
Wilburn, who grew up on a farm, usually plants his tomatoes by May 15 and starts picking them by the Fourth of July. This year, because of the rains, he started 10 days late.
He recommends adding to the soil one-quarter of a handful of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each seedling at the time of planting, then sprinkling around each plant two-thirds of a handful of the same fertilizer at the time when fruiting begins, normally in middle-to-late June.
Tomatoes need a good balance between nitrogen--which helps the foliage but delays fruiting--and potassium--which is responsible for healthy flowering and fruiting.
But the secret of getting the first ripe tomatoes on the block has to do with heat. The tomato is a tropical plant, and it thrives in temperatures above 70 degree Fahrenheit. To keep it warm and to protect it from chills is the key.
A one-gallon wine jug--clear, with the bottom sawed off and the cork removed for ventilation--makes for an ideal individual greenhouse, with an unbeatable combination of full exposure to the sun and good insulation from cold. A messier and less permanent arrangement is a polyethylene cover--either as an individual "hot cap" or as a tunnel girded by wire hoops. Still another system of coddling a tomato is to have it walled in by a milk carton cut off at the top and the bottom.
Giving the roots extra attention is a smart idea. Dick Raymond, in his books published by Garden Way in Charlotte, Vt., recommends laying the tomato plant on its side, in a furrow so it will root all along its stem. The first tiny hair roots later thicken into a tangle, which helps to grow a rugged plant. As long as those early roots are close to the surface--between 2 and 3 inches--they will benefit from the warmth that penetrates downward surprisingly slowly. In the Washington area this year, the soil temperature just below the surface is still quite cold.
Raymond suggests transplanting tomatoes always deeper than they were growing originally. Only the top leaves should show, he writes, pick off all but the topmost leaves.
In his 1975 book, "Down-to-Earth Vegetable Gardening Know-How," Raymond writes: "For extra-early tomatoes, one gardener selects a few tomato plants after he's set them out and they've got a good start; then he digs them up and transplants them to another spot in the garden. In about two weeks, he transplants them again, being careful to keep some soil around the roots. He finds that these plants bear ripe tomatoes a week to ten days earlier."
A good way to keep tomato roots warm is by the judicious mixing in, at the time of planting, of horse manure no longer fresh and hot, but still chemically active enough to be warm to the touch. Do not overdo it, and make sure that the horse manure doesn't touch (and perhaps burn) the root system.
Use a covering of black polyethylene to heat up the soil faster.
Keep pinching off branches, so the plant concentrates its energy on growing one sturdy stalk rather than a big bush.
And if you must absolutely win the trophy, keep pinching off all the flower clusters except one, the first or the healthiest. You may hand-pollinate the flowers with a soft paint brush or leave pollination to the bees. But since the plant will not scatter its energy, that one flower cluster you have is likely to rush into production first.