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Talk about spring fever: We have recently exulted in the “green” of St. Patrick’s Day, swooned at the huge moon, celebrated the first day of spring, seen the first bluebirds and are counting daffodil tips emerging in the garden. That means it’s time to talk tomatoes.

Die-hard tomato seed starters firmly maintain that tomato seeds should be started indoors, on heat mats and under lights during the state basketball tournament.

There is another school of thought and practice that deserves discussion. But first: some tomato vocabulary.

  • Determinate is a tomato that grows to a specific, usually moderate height and sets fruit, which ripens almost at the same time. For example, my favorite tomato, Silvery Fir Tree, is determinate. It begins to ripen in mid-August and we pick, eat, cook and freeze fruit for a month.
  • Indeterminate is a tomato that continues to grow, flower and fruit until killed by frost.
  • Days to maturity describes that period of time from when the seedling is placed in the ground to the appearance of the first ripe fruit.

The tomato originated in warm climates with long growing seasons. Its roots want to be in soils that are at least 55 degrees or warmer. Based on data provided by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Rapid City, from 2000 to 2010, Rapid City averaged 59 days per year where the lowest temperature was 55 degrees or warmer. In that decade, there were three years where the average low temperatures were well below 55 degrees. Thus we learn that our soil temperatures, on average, will not support the potential crop of long-season tomatoes (described by me as 55-day or longer).

So whether we start tomatoes ourselves or buy started plants, there is a case to be made for finding short-season varieties. Some of these are Siberia (48-55), Sub Arctic (49-62), Early Girl (52-62), Early Wonder (55), Prairie Fire (55) and Silvery Fir Tree (55-65).

Some of these will be available in the local greenhouses as started plants; others can be found and purchased as seed.

Friend and fellow Master Gardener Roxy Hunter starts tomato seeds indoors. She assembles her equipment: a seed germination heat mat (available at greenhouses and hardware stores), a rack large enough to hold the flats, lights and a supply of pots in graded sizes for transplanting before setting out.

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She has learned not to rush the season. According to her records, she planted between April 6 and April 15 and achieved germination in three to four days. All were transplanted into larger pots twice or three times. The plants, with terrific root systems and compact healthy top growth, were set out (after six to 10 days of hardening off) the first week of June. She grew Better Boy (72-75), Ultimate Opener (55-68), Sun Gold (55-68) and Roma (49).

We think out Silvery Fir Tree, Early Girl and Siberia tomatoes are perfect for cooking, freezing, salads and slicing. Why? Because they produce for us and we are happy with what we get.

Cathie Draine is a member of the South Dakota State University Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners and the Garden Writers’ Association. She lives and gardens in Black Hawk. Contact her at

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