Grown as annuals in home gardens across the United States, tomatoes are actually a tender perennial. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, tomatoes rank fourth in consumption of fresh vegetables, outranked only by potatoes, onions and lettuce. As of 2000, the average American consumes 17.8 pounds of fresh tomatoes per year. The state of California produces 96 percent of tomatoes used for processing and one third of those consumed fresh. Growing tomatoes in the home garden requires adequate space, proper soil preparation, and application of fertilizer to boost growth.
Select an area for tomatoes that receives six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day. This warm-season vegetable thrives in all-day sun.
Till the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Remove rocks, roots and other debris. Thawing and freezing during the winter months often heaves rocks to the surface even in areas that have been cultivated in the prior year. Rake the area smooth.
Perform a soil test in the fall or early spring before amending the soil. Contact your local extension office and follow directions for gathering a soil sample. The soil testing office provides a written summary of the condition of your soil with recommendations for adjusting pH, balancing nutrients, and improving the texture of your soil. Follow the instructions to amend the soil and adjust the pH to between 6.2 and 6.8.
Dig a hole with a diameter of 18 inches and a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Add 2 quarts of well-rotted manure or compost to the hole and work in well with the existing soil. This provides a boost of nutrients without the risk of damaging young roots from fertilizer, and improves drainage. Although tomatoes are heavy feeders that require frequent deep watering, they suffer if roots remain in soggy soil.
Transplant seedlings to the garden once the danger of frost has passed and temperatures remain above 55 degrees F at night. Tomatoes exposed to cool nighttime temperatures often suffer from blossom drop and may be set back several weeks due to stress.
Trace a circle in the soil 6 inches from the base of the plant and apply a thin ring (1/4 to 1/2 cup) of 5-10-10 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) fertilizer. Work into the soil with a hoe or rake. Water thoroughly to moisten the soil to the root level. Fertilizer applied to the soil releases nutrients gradually when plants are watered without posing a threat to tender young roots.