Fresh, sun-warmed tomatoes from the garden are a summer luxury that is hard to top. You can start your seeds when winter still has its bitter grip on the land and by the first signs of spring you will have little seedlings ready for the soil. Depending on the variety, tomatoes are ready to harvest anywhere from 50 to 80 days after transplanting. Plant several different varieties of tomato plants, they will delight you with their different flavors, colors and textures and you can stagger the harvest season so that you can have fresh tomatoes all summer long.
Mix equal parts perlite, vermiculite and peat moss in a bucket. Add water as you mix until the mixture is evenly damp.
Fill a seed starting flat with the damp soil mixture. The flats that are divided into 2- inch sections work well.
Make a 1/8-inch deep hole in each section. Place one seed in each hole and cover it with soil. Press the soil down firmly over the seed. Start seedlings six to eight weeks before the last frost date in your area.
Place the flat in a warm, dark area. Temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees F are ideal for seed germination. Keep the flat damp but never saturated.
Move the flat to a sunny warm area as soon as the seeds germinate. You will see the seedlings emerge 5 to 10 days after planting.
Transplant the seedlings into 4-inch planting pots filled with potting soil when you see two true leaves emerge. As the days warm up move the seedling outside into dappled or indirect sunlight for one to two hours a day. This will harden off the plants so that transplanting is not a fatal shock to the young seedlings.
Dig up and turn over the soil in a planting bed until it is loose and crumbly. Choose an area that gets full sun throughout the day. Mix compost and seasoned manure into the soil before you plant to improve the nutrient levels of the soil for your tomato plants.
Test the soil temperature with a thermometer in the early morning, when the soil is between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit and the days are consistently above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, you are ready to plant your seedlings. Dig holes that are 6 inches wide and as deep as the root system and stem of your tomato seedling. Space holes 18 to 24 inches apart.
Turn the seedlings on their side and gently work then from the planting pots. Place one seedling in each hole so that the stem is covered to just below the first leaves.
Water the area until the soil is damp to a depth of 3 inches. Place a stake, trellis or tomato cage near or around each plant. As the plant matures, gently attach the stem to the structure using garden twine or string. Tie the plants loosely to avoid damaging the stalks.
Fertilize your plants once a month using a liquid tomato food fertilizer. Check the back of the package for dilution and application amounts. Water every three to five days or when the soil begins to feel dry to the touch.
Harvest tomatoes as they come ripe on the vine. They should have a firm texture and full color, either red or yellow depending on the variety.