After a long, cold winter, gardeners often are itching to get outside to work the soil and plant flowers and vegetables, especially tomatoes. A common mistake is to plant seeds or young plants outdoors too soon, exposing the plants to late frost. At the same time, nobody wants to wait until the end of summer to harvest fresh tomatoes. Some tomato plants bear fruit faster than others, but there are ways a gardener can facilitate faster tomato growth and earlier harvests with even long-season heirlooms.
Choose a variety of tomato that has early maturation. Read the seed package to determine how long before specific types of tomato plants bear fruit; some mature in two months or so. If time is of the essence, choose a variety that takes less time to be ready for harvest. Early Girl and Wild Cherry only take 60 days to harvest.
Purchase seeds packaged for the current year to ensure fast germination. Heirloom tomatoes tend to be more flavorful and have thinner skins.
Start tomato seeds indoors four weeks before the final frost is expected in your region. This enables you to start them early, ensuring an earlier harvest. Purchase a tabletop greenhouse complete with seed starting tray with cells and a lid. Place potting soil in all of the cells, and three or four tomato seeds in each cell. Spray with water and place the lid on to keep the seeds warm. Ideally, place the tabletop greenhouse in a sunny window facing south. Remove the top once a day to spray with water. Condensation may form inside on the lid; that is normal. Tomato seeds will sprout fastest in an environment that is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and humid.
For faster growth, purchase potting soil with plant food in it.
Remove the cover of the tabletop greenhouse after sprouts appear, but keep the tray in a sunny window. Continue to water at the same time every day.
Transplant the tomato plants into larger pots when you see true leaves. The first leaves on any sprout are not true leaves; they are simply the "leaf" that surrounded the seed before it sprouted. When you see a third leaf in the middle that is a different shape than the other two, that third leaf is a true leaf.
Use high quality potting soil that is complete with plant food. Transplant the tomatoes gently; never handle a plant by the roots. Hold the plant by the stem. Keep the pots in the sunny window and water at the same time every day.
Harden the plants. Two weeks before you plan to transplant the tomatoes into the garden, begin putting them outside during the warmest part of the day. Each day, leave them out a little longer.
Transplant after any chance of frost is over. Frost may kill tomato plants. For fastest growth, keep them warm and hydrated by placing some cedar mulch or plastic mulch around them after transplanting.
Cover the newly transplanted tomatoes at night with either a paper bag or a plastic mini-greenhouse cover (or use clean milk or juice containers with the bottoms cut out). That will help them stay warm and grow tomatoes faster, and is for extra security after transplanting. Covering tomatoes protects against damage from wind, chilly temperatures, and nighttime pests. Do that for at least a week.
For fastest tomato growth and production, feed tomato plants after the first fruits begin to show. Continue to add a nitrogen rich fertilizer or plant food every two weeks. When applying plant food, rake it into the soil around the tomatoes and try not to get the plant food on the foliage. Water well and cover the rich soil with mulch to keep the tomato plant warm and hydrated (mulch thwarts water evaporation, leaving more water in the soil for the plant).