Tomatoes are by far the most popular home gardening vegetable crop. This is not surprising, considering they are fairly easy to grow and provide a bountiful harvest. Most importantly, no store-bought tomato can compare to the flavor of one that is home-grown. Once you have a taste of your first harvest, you'll be hooked.
Select a sunny location with good drainage to plant your tomatoes. Turn the soil with a garden fork and remove sticks and rocks. Work compost into the soil, about 18 inches deep, to prepare your plot.
Decide what tomato varieties you would like to grow. Consider whether you want a salad or slicing tomato, one for cooking, or if you plan to preserve them (see Resources).
Start seedlings indoors eight to 10 weeks before the last frost is expected. Fill 3-inch pots or growing flats with a light, soil-less growing medium. Sow seeds 1/8 of an inch deep and cover them lightly. Keep them in a warm place and slightly moist. As soon as seeds sprout, place them in a sunny window or under fluorescent grow lights.
Transplant your tomatoes after the danger of frost has passed, and preferable when the ground has warmed up. Harden off the plants a week before transplanting to help them adapt to their new location and reduce transplant shock. This is accomplished by setting pots outside each day for seven days, gradually lengthening the time each day. Start with one hour and work up to eight hours.
Space your tomato plants at least 24 inches apart in rows that are 36 to 48 inches apart. For best results, cut off all branches from the main stem on the bottom 2/3 of the plant, leaving just the top forked branch and leaves. Dig a deep hole with a hand trowel and set the plant in the ground, burying most of the stem, so that only the top 1/3 is exposed. This will encourage strong, deep rooting and result in a better harvest.
Place tomato cages in the soil around your plants, one for each plant, to provide stability as they grow. Apply a thick layer of mulch to discourage weeds and retain heat and moisture in the soil.
Water tomatoes deeply three or four times a week. Keep the soil moist but don't allow it to get muddy. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so choose an all-purpose vegetable fertilizer, or an organic fertilizer, such as 10-10-10. Apply it at least as often as recommended on the package.
Inspect your plants regularly for pests and diseases to nip problems in the bud (see Resources). Harvest tomatoes 60 to 110 days after transplanting, depending on the variety. Wait until the fruits begin to ripen on the vine,then cut them off at the stem with a sharp knife.