Are you looking to harvest delicious, sun-ripe tomatoes earlier next season? Tired of the tasteless and expensive store-bought tomatoes at your local grocery store?
First, the good news. You can affect how long it will take to grow ripe harvest-ready tomatoes.
But there are several factors where you simply have to deal with what nature delivers.
You can expect to harvest ripe tomatoes after 60-120 days from transplanting plants outdoors. Why the wide range? Factors like tomato variety, grow zone, weather, plant care, and the amount of natural sunlight will greatly affect how quickly you can harvest sun-ripe tomatoes from your garden.
But even though I cannot hurry nature, I have learned that there are things I can do to speed up the process.
You could say I tilt the deck in my favor and work to create ideal growing conditions.
But before we get into the details, let’s have a look at the different stages of the tomato plant life cycle.
- Understanding The Growth Stages of Tomato Plants
- Selecting Early or Late Tomato Varieties
- Tomato Plant Care
- Your Climate and Grow Zone
- Weather and Sunlight This Particular Growing Season
- But Wait, What If I Start My Tomatoes From Seed?
- Summary: How Long It Takes to Grow Tomatoes
Understanding The Growth Stages of Tomato Plants
The life cycle of a tomato plant starts with germination and ends with harvesting ripe tomatoes.
Knowing the different stages helps you navigate the challenges of each individual phase.
All times are approximate and given in ranges based on what I know to be true in my growing environment.
Germination (5-15 Days):
- Seeds require moisture and warmth to sprout the first leaves
- Tiny seedlings emerge from the soil.
Seedling Stage (2-5 Weeks):
- Seedlings grow their first true leaves and develop a stronger root system.
- Seedlings need consistent moisture and sufficient light to thrive.
Transplanting (When The Risk Of Frost Is Over):
- After hardening off, seedlings are moved from indoor pots to outdoor beds or containers.
- The young plants continue to grow and adapt to their new environment.
Vegetative Growth (3-5 Weeks):
- The plant focuses on growing leaves, stems, and branches.
- Regular feeding with nitrogen-heavy fertilizer encourages healthy growth.
- Pruning may be necessary to maintain healthy plant structure.
Flowering (3+ Weeks):
- Tiny yellow flowers appear on the tomato plant.
- Pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hoverflies help with fertilization.
Fruit Set (1-2 Weeks After Flowering):
- After successful pollination, small green fruits begin to form.
- These green tomatoes will gradually grow in size and ripen.
- Consistent watering and proper care are crucial during this stage.
Maturation (60-120 Days):
- Varies by variety and growing conditions.
- Tomatoes change color and develop their signature flavor.
- Harvesting is a process as tomatoes ripen at different times.
With a better understanding of the growth cycle, let’s dive in and look at:
- What can we do to harvest our tomatoes earlier and
- The factors we have to prepare for and navigate when they happen
Selecting Early or Late Tomato Varieties
Looking for a way to shorten the time it takes to grow tomatoes?
Well, here is one factor where you have ALL the power.
Tomatoes come in various shapes, sizes, and flavors. And there are early and late tomato varieties.
- General advice: Different varieties have different growing periods. Cherry tomatoes, for instance, tend to ripen quicker than beefsteak varieties.
- Indeterminate vs. determinate tomatoes: Determinate varieties stop growing at a certain height and tend to produce all their fruit at once, perfect for regions with a short growing season. Indeterminate types grow all season long and produce fruits throughout the season, giving a longer but later harvest.
- Early varieties: There are many early tomato varieties. My favorites include Black Prince, Tigerella, Black Cherry, Early Girl, Sungold, and Bajaja.
In summary, grow an early determinate cherry tomato variety to harvest early. Looking for an early harvest and a larger fruit? The Black Prince is a wonderful tomato to grow and use.
Tomato Plant Care
Even the strongest plants will wither and fail to produce fruits if you neglect them.
And if you want to harvest early, you better give your plants the VIP treatment to avoid losing time due to transplant shock or worse.
Here are the main plant care points to stay on top of:
- Hardening-off: Give your plants a gentle introduction to their new growing environment. Spend at least a week hardening off your plants.
- Location: Your tomato plants want at least 6-8 hours of full sun daily. But be prepared to shield the plants from direct sunlight during the hottest times of the day.
- Soil: Tomatoes want fertile, well-draining soil full of organic matter. Amend your soil with compost 2-4 times over the growing season.
- Mulching: A thick layer of mulch helps retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature, and prevent weeds from growing
- Weeding: Remove weeds. You do not want anything competing for nutrients and water.
- Watering: Always water at the base of the plant and maintain moist but never wet soil
- Fertilizing: Feed your plants a water-soluble organic fertilizer every two weeks. Read and follow the application instructions.
- Pruning: Prune suckers and side stems to focus on developing fruits on one main stem. Top prune your plant if you see flowers forming when the plant enters the fruiting stage later in the season.
- Pest control: Early detection through manual inspection is key. Combine manual removal with spraying your plant with water. A Neem oil and water or soap and water solution can be used if needed.
- Harvesting: Harvest fruits when they are ripe to allow the plant to use its energy to ripen green fruits.
Plant care is a broad subject, and I have written several articles on how I care for my tomato plants.
Related post: Guide to growing tomatoes like a master gardener
Your Climate and Grow Zone
I live and grow in zone 7. Winters are cold, and summer does not really arrive until June. I can typically move my tomato plants outside in late April or early May.
A colder winter and shorter summer means it takes longer for the soil to warm up. And this affects how long the plant takes to develop ripe tomatoes.
There is, of course, no way to hurry up nature, but we can adapt how we grow our tomatoes.
I grow several early varieties in grow bags and raised garden beds. The soil warms up more quickly here than in my in-ground vegetable garden. This way, I can harvest some early varieties like the Bajaja in late June. And for me, that is early.
Weather and Sunlight This Particular Growing Season
The local weather conditions also affect how long it takes to grow ripe tomatoes.
It is easy to generalize and remember all years as being much the same.
But if you have a garden journal (or follow the Photo of the Week section), you know that each growing season presents its own challenges.
Over the last 5 years, I have experienced growing seasons with:
- A lot of rain
- Very little rain
- Local water restrictions
- Periods of extreme heat
- Low night-time temperatures well into late June
- Cloudy and overcast weather, often referred to as a “bad summer”
- Windy conditions and even storms
These factors allow us to prepare for the worst and react to what happens.
- Growing some plants in pots, containers, and grow bags to be mobile and move plants if needed
- Harvesting rainwater to deal with local water restrictions
- Support and stake our plants properly before they need it
Reacting is more of a well, reaction after the fact. Here, the damage is usually already done. Plants will usually bounce back, but severe setbacks will delay your harvest by several weeks.
I was hit by windy conditions and a spell with cold temperatures that affected 9 of my beefsteak tomato plants. I lost several weeks while the plants recuperated and had to be content with a smaller harvest from those plants.
But Wait, What If I Start My Tomatoes From Seed?
Tomatoes take time to grow and ripen. And this is true whether you start your tomatoes from seed or buy ready-to-plant transplants at your local nursery.
I could start my seeds in early January and have transplant-ready plants in 6-8 weeks. But I would still have to wait for the weather outside to catch up.
I start all my plants from seed, but it does not give me an earlier harvest.
- Seed starters sow seeds in Spring. The goal is to have transplant-ready plants when there is no longer any risk of frost in your region.
- If you buy transplant-ready plants, you will also wait for frost-free conditions to plant your tomatoes.
Unless you plan to grow your tomatoes indoors or in a heated greenhouse.
Summary: How Long It Takes to Grow Tomatoes
Several factors affect how long it takes to grow tomatoes. Some we can work with, others we react to and deal with.
Expect your tomatoes to be ready for harvest in 60-120 days from transplanting the plants outside.
This is a wide range as several factors come into play:
- Tomato Variety: Early and late varieties have different growing periods.
- Indeterminate vs. determinate tomatoes: Determinate varieties produce all their fruits at once and only grow to a specific height.
- Cherry Tomatoes: Cherry tomatoes often ripen faster than larger varieties
- Weather Conditions: Mother Nature plays a crucial role. Tomatoes thrive in warm weather, and a consistent temperature in the low 20s Celsius (low 70s Fahrenheit) is ideal.
- Plant Care: Look after your plants and create an ideal growing environment for harvest earlier.
- Local Weather Variations: Growing tomatoes in pots, containers, or grow bags allows you to be mobile of bad weather strikes.