Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable garden plant in America. They're easy and fun to grow and delicious to eat. Five basic steps to growing great tomatoes...
Choose disease-resistant varieties. Look for the letters V, N or F after the variety name. They have been bred to resist common pests.
Plant tomatoes where they'll get plenty of sun.
Water them regularly. I recommend a soaker hose (a hose made of very porous material that lets water seep out slowly) that delivers about a pint of water a day to each plant.
Control pests by planting marigolds among the tomatoes. The odor of these flowers is detested by tomato-loving pests.
Prevent soil exhaustion. Rotate crops to different areas of the garden every other year.
There are thousands of types of tomato plants. Most of the seeds and seedlings sold in garden centers are hybrids. These have been crossbred to produce red, round, firm and blemish-free tomatoes.
Heirloom tomatoes predate modern commercial breeding methods. They are varieties that were grown at least 50 years ago and have been "rediscovered." They have more flavor and texture than the hybrid varieties. Many garden centers and seed catalogs offer them.
Once you've decided what sort of tomato plants you want, you then have to choose which of the many varieties are best for you. My recommendations...
Banana Legs. A novelty hybrid with small, yellow, pointed fruits that resemble bananas. Good flavor and easy to grow -- kids love this tomato.
Big Boy. Classic hybrid yields eight-ounce or larger fruits. Big Boy is not as disease resistant as some varieties, but it is an excellent choice for size, texture and flavor.
Brandywine. Heirloom that continuously bears tomatoes until the first frost. It was developed by Amish farmers in the 1880s. They are big, juicy and delicious. The most flavorful tomato you can grow. My favorite tomato!
Celebrity. Nearly indestructible and very disease-resistant hybrid with great flavor. (My personal favorite among the hybrids.)
Early Girl. Hybrid that produces four- to six-ounce fruits; first tomatoes are ready about 60 days after planting.
Mountain series. Popular group of hybrid. Very disease-resistant and flavorful.
Sweetie. Very easy to grow nonhybrid cherry tomato.
Sweet 100. Easy to grow hybrid cherry tomato.
What to look for when you buy tomato seedlings: Look for healthy, bright green plants about four to six inches high, with stems about the diameter of a pencil and several sets of healthy-looking green leaves.
Avoid: Plants that have yellowed, wilted or curled leaves -- they could be diseased. Also try to avoid plants that already have small green buds or small five-petal, yellow flowers. These have been held in their seedling pots for too long and will never develop strong roots.
Tomatoes love the sun and hate the cold. What to do...
Plant your tomato seedlings where they'll get plenty of sunlight -- at least six hours of full sun a day and preferably more.
Wait until after the last frost date for your area before planting your tomato plants. To find the last frost date for your area, check with your county's US Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service agent (look in the blue pages of your phone book).
If you grow tomatoes from seeds, plant them in small pots in potting soil in a warm, light-filled indoor area. Plant the seeds eight weeks before the last frost date so they will be sturdy and ready to plant when the time comes to transplant the seedlings in the garden.
Plant your tomatoes about two feet apart in holes about six to eight inches deep.
Strong roots are the true secret of great tomatoes. Plant your tomatoes deep enough to cover the entire root ball and the stem up to the first pair of leaves. The buried stem will grow extra roots.
Drop a few pinches of crushed eggshell into the hole before setting down the plant. The calcium in the shells helps the fruits grow evenly into nice round shapes.
Put your tomato stakes in at the time you plant the seedlings. Even bushy tomato varieties do better when you stake them up to keep the fruits and leaves off the ground.
Water regularly and thoroughly -- roughly two to three gallons per plant per week -- about a pint per plant a day.
Check the moisture level in your tomato patch every two to three days by digging down a couple of inches. If the soil is dry below the surface, it's time to water.
Never use a sprinkler to water your tomatoes.
By far the best way to water your tomatoes is with an inexpensive soaker hose snaked around the plants. Open the tap just a crack and let the hose run for two to three hours.
With a soaker hose, the water gets right down to the roots where it's needed -- and it stays off the leaves and fruit, where wetness can cause disease problems.
If you can't use a soaker hose, bury a one-pound coffee can (ends removed) next to each plant. Fill the can with water -- it will slowly soak in. Repeat every two to three days or as needed.
A thick layer of mulch or a black plastic sheet helps retain moisture in the soil and keep down weeds.
Fertilize every few weeks. I recommend Miracle-Gro not just for your tomatoes but for the rest of the vegetable garden as well. Follow the instructions on the package.
You can grow great tomatoes in a container on a porch or even a sunny windowsill.
Choose a smaller or dwarf variety such as the Husky series... or the Toy Boy... or Tiny Tim cherry tomatoes.
You'll need a fairly large plastic or terracotta container -- 32 inches in diameter is a good size. Put rocks in the bottom of the container to facilitate drainage. Fill the container with potting soil (not soil from the garden), plant your tomatoes and water them regularly to make sure they do not dry out.
Container-grown tomatoes dry out very quickly -- you may need to water as often as twice a day.
Harvest your tomatoes when they are at the peak of flavor, just when they've turned solid red all over.
And never put tomatoes in the refrigerator! Reason: Chilling tomatoes ruins their texture. Ripen tomatoes in a dark place, such as a brown paper bag, not on the windowsill.