Nine square feet and a single seed. That's all you need to grow as many juicy, vine-ripened, BLT-perfect tomatoes as you can eat in a season. But if you are like most gardeners, you want to a bounty of luscious beefsteaks, saucers, cherries, and more that you can share with family and friends, make into salsa or chutney, and put up in jars of sauce. I've gathered the hints and tricks that have proven themselves season after season in our test gardens into this guide that takes you from planting to picking.
Choosing: When buying a six-pack of seedlings to transplant to your garden, look for clean, dark green foliage and a sturdy habit. If the bottom leaves are yellow or flowers are present, the plant is stressed. Check also for aphids and other pests. The healthiest, most productive plants start out unstressed and pest-free. Picking a few varieties from among the hundreds available is a real challenge. We've named a few best bets below. But before you even look at a variety, you have a few choices to make.
Heirlooms vs. hybrids. Heirlooms are often not as productive as hybrids, but they typically taste better and you can save their seeds from one season to the next, eventually breeding a variety that is perfectly suited to your conditions. Most heirlooms are "indeterminate" types, meaning they grow long, sprawling vines and produce tomatoes continuously through the season. Hybrids, on the other hand, often have disease-resistance that heirlooms lack. You can tell what diseases a hybrid can withstand by the letters after its name on the plant tag. For example, VFFNTA means the plant is resistant to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium races 1 and 2, root knot Nematodes, Tobacco mosaic virus, and Alternaria stem canker. That's a good choice if diseases have knocked out your tomatoes in the past.
Early start. To extend your tomato-harvesting season, plant one or two early-ripening varieties. These are often "determinate" types, meaning they produce all at once and have shorter, less rangy vines.
Planting Don't rush to plant. Getting a tomato plant into the ground when the soil is cold causes it to turn purple (purple foliage means the plant can't take up phosphorus). Wait a week or two after the average last-frost date. Plant deep, up to the first set of leaves. Tomatoes develop adventitious roots—roots that originate from the buried stem. A bigger and broader root system helps the plant support a heavy load of fruit. Space plants about 3 feet apart, unless you're using the stake-and-weave support system.