Site PreparationTomatoes grow best in full sunlight, in a location where they are open to free air circulation. The soil needs to be well-drained and should be cultivated with plenty of compost and well rotted manure.
Choosing a VarietyThere are many varieties of tomatoes ranging from small to large, stake to cluster, and tiny cherries-on-a-bush to huge dinner-for-two-on-a-staked-plant. Some varieties include:
* Cluster tomatoes (hybrid) are borne in clusters of 6 to 8, and bear a smooth, firm dark glossy red skin. They are picked in clusters and retain their fresh taste even after picked.
* Beefsteak tomatoes are the hardier of the tomatoes and are available in many different varieties, with delicious fruit that can exceed 12 oz. in size. These are ideal for slicing and putting on hamburgers.
* Cherry tomatoes can be grown in the garden or in patio planters and come in many varieties and harvesting times.
PlantingTomato seeds can be started indoors about 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last spring frost. Place 2 to 3 seeds in every 1-inch cell and then thin out to 1 per cell once they sprout. Cover the seeds with 1 inch of soil and keep them where the temperature will remain a constant 70 to 80 degrees F and where there is continual light. When the plants have 2 or 3 sets of leaves, transplant them into larger pots (2 or 3 inch squared). Fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer every 2 weeks starting at half strength and increasing to full strength over the next 6 weeks. Transplant outdoors only after all danger of the last frost is passed, as they are very susceptible to frost damage. Space the plants 24 to 36 inches apart with rows at least 36 to 48 inches apart.
Every gardener has his own theory about pruning tomatoes. I only prune when the plant becomes too heavy or is difficult to train on the stake. Young prunings can be rooted in a glass of water and will be ready to set out in a couple of weeks. If you choose not to prune, you can pinch out the top of the plant to encourage bushy growth. This works well in hot climates.
Plants that are dark green and vigorous don't need more nitrogen. If your plants are yellowing, the addition of nitrogen will probably solve the problem. Some lower leaves will inevitably yellow and drop off up to three weeks after planting. Too much nitrogen will result in lots of dark green leaves and no fruit, so wait until blooms appear to side-dress with nitrogen. Try using a quart of manure tea for each plant. The recipe is one third manure and two thirds water, stirring daily for two weeks. Don't get it on the leaves, as they burn easily.
Mixing lime in with the soil will help reduce mineral imbalances that cause fruit deformities. The calcium in the lime will help prevent blossom end rot which is a common problem with tomatoes.
Stems need help to support the heavy fruit. Use 6 foot stakes and fix firmly in soil at planting to prevent root damage in growing plants. As the plant grows, secure it to the stake with soft ties at 12 inch intervals.
Tomato cages work very well. Use commercial cages or make your own from wire fence. Make sure the gage of the fence is large enough to allow you to insert your hand and pull out a large tomato. Caging usually results in smaller but more plentiful tomatoes.
Good companions for tomatoes include cabbage, carrots, celery, onion, mint, pot marigold (calendula) and borage. Borage actually improves the flavor of tomatoes, and the young leaves are a great addition to a tomato salad. Pot marigold and borage help deter tomato worms. Don't plant tomatoes near fennel or corn.
First, make sure your tomatoes are not hybrids. Hybrid tomato seeds will not not produce plants like the parents. Heirloom tomatoes are the best for saving seeds.
Choose the best tomatoes on your plant for seed saving. It's a good idea to choose some of the last fruit of the season and let them ripen fully on the vine. When the tomato dents easily when squeezed lightly, it's time to harvest seeds. Remove the seeds from the tomato, then pick up a dozen or so with the tip of a spoon. Spread the seeds around on an index card and allow the card to dry in an area with good ventilation. Once dry, write the name of your tomato plants on the card, seal them in a baggy, and store in a cool, dry place. Next spring the seeds will peel from the card easily.
Harvest and StoragePick the fruit when they are firm and starting to turn red. If they are left on the vine to ripen, they should be used immediately as overripe tomatoes rot very quickly. The fruit can be eaten fresh, preserved whole in mason jars, or made into sauce or juice and preserved.