Tomatoes are America's most popular garden crop. They're lush and delicious, and redder than anything around them. Tomatoes never whisper about summer - when it's in full flower, they shout.

Without tomatoes, summer wouldn't be summer, and there would be no pizza, no saucy pasta, no chili. There wouldn't be Manhattan clam chowder, or bloody Marys, and the BLT would just be a bacon-and-lettuce sandwich.

Until the last century, that's pretty much how things stood in America. People grew tomatoes for ornament, but they called them love apples, and the called them poison. Toward the end of the century, brave souls began giving tomato-eating demonstrations. When their neighbors saw they didn't die, they tried some. And it caught on.

Tomatoes take a bit of garden space, but few gardeners ever complain about it, because tomatoes give a good return on the investment. One good plant will fill many bowls with tomatoes, and one potted plant growing on a patio will provide fruits for several summer salads.

If you have enough room, it's nice to plant several kinds of tomatoes. Plant early, mid-season and late, and they'll keep you eating for a long season. Here in New Jersey, early gardeners shoot for ripe tomatoes by July 4. It's sometimes difficult, but it's always worth a try.

I plant early types, like Earliana or Earlibell, and I always give them a good start indoors. Then I put a few out, earlier than I think I ought, and protect them on cold nights. It's a gamble, but early tomatoes make it worthwhile. Early and small tomatoes are best for growing in pots, because they never grow that big or bushy.

But early types won't bear for a long season, so follow them with a mid-season crop like Marglobe or one of the juice types. These are bigger and tastier. The huge tomatoes, like Big Boy and Better Boy, take about 80 days. They don't produce until late in the season. They're great, but not if you've been waiting all season for your first to ripen.

If you've started seeds inside, you already know what kinds of tomatoes you'll have. But if you're buying plants, do it now, and do' it wisely. Look around, ask questions. Find out what's available and then make your selections.

Don't forget Italian plums. They're pulpy and not too juicy, and that makes them perfect for sauce and paste. Yellow pear tomatoes are sweet and unusual, and they make delicious tomato jam.

Ponderosa is big, and pinky purple. Stuffing tomatoes lack taste, but they grow hollow, like peppers, and they're nice to stuff. Oxheart is heartshaped, and solid.

All tomatoes need a sunny spot - and three feet between plants if you've planning to mulch and let them ramble. If you stake them, they can get by with two.

The mulchh is easier, but in wet years, you get some rot. Staking saves space and yields red fruits faster.

Use six-foot stakes, and set them in before you set out the plants. Use something soft to tie the plant up. Old sheets, torn to strips, work well, and never cut into the plants as wire or rope can.

I usually dig a hole a foot deep and fill it halfway with compost. I pour water in, and let it settle, and I plant deep, even if it means removing the lower leaves. Tomatoes will grow roots along the buried stems and get stronger.

Set them out late in the day, preferably on a cloudy day. Water them well and shade them a day or two. Don't move them directly from a greenhouse to the outdoors, but do it gradually, over a couple of days.

Water them regularly, and, whether or not you stake, mulch them with hay or grass clippings when they bloom. If you mulch earlier, you'll slow them down.

Give them paper cylinders as collars if you suspect you have cutworms, which chomp the plants off at ground level, and watch for hornworms. They're about two inches long, and they look like dragons if you see them. They look like tomatoes stems if you don't and you might not notice them until leaves start disappearing. Hand-picking usually stops them.

If you want to increase your tomato crop and you have space, try removing the vertical suckers that grow in the leaf axils and root them in water. Plant the rooted shoots outside and they'll bear tomatoes just a few weeks later than their parent plants.

And there's really nothing more to tomatoes. Get them established and mulched and they'll take care of themselves. You'll only have to enjoy the fruits of your labor.