The tomato is probably the most popular vegetable that can be grown in a garden. When home-grown and fully ripened on the vine before picking, it usually has more flavor than those found in stores. And it doesn't need much space, either among flowers or vegetables, to provide plenty of fruit.

The tomato requires full sun, and the soil should be prepared before planting, but even if it isn't, it most likely will provide some fruit anyway.

The plants should not be planted outdoors until danger of frost is over, around May 1 in the Washington area

"I've had my best success by not planting them until the soil temperature in the upper two inches has reached about 55 degrees, noon reading," says Dr. Charles R O'Dell, Virginia Tech specialist. "Any thermometer with an exposed bulb or mercuryend will do the job for the home gardener."

Put plants where they will get at least eight hours of full sun daily. Spread about two inches of peat moss, a couple of handfuls of finely ground limestone and an equal amount of 5-10-5 fertilizer on the ground where they are to be planted and mix everything thoroughly with the top eight inches of soil.

There are a lot of kinds to choose from for planting . Some of the best include Better Boy, Burpee's Big Girl, Park's Whopper, Floramerica, Supersonic, Beefmaster and Terrific. All of these are resistant to Fusarium, a disease that can kill the plants.

If you buy plants from a garden center, select those that are dark green, about 8 inches tall, thick-stemmed and apparently in good condition.

Acclimatize them before planting them outdoors, that is, adjust them to the changed environment. It is called hardening-off. Put them outdoors for an hour or two the first day and increase the time for four or five days.

When you plant them, don't fail to give each one a starter solution, such as a half-pint of water in which 5-10-5 fertilizer has been dissolved at the rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon. The superphosphate in it can counteract high and low soil temperatures that tend to restrict plant growth. At low phosphorus levels a soil temperature varying only a few degrees from 59 degrees f. significantly inhibits growth.

For top-quality fruit, grow your tomatoes in cages. Make the cages 18 inches in diameter, 4 to 5 feet tall, of concrete reinforcement wire with openings of at least 6 inches.

Don't mulch the tomatoes when you first plant them outdoors, unless you use black plastic. The others will keep the soil from warming up.

Tomatoes need about an inch of water each week. If rainfall is inadequate, they should be watered. Do not wet the foliage any more than necessary. Frequent light sprinklings of 5 to 10 minutes are likely to do more harm than good.

When the first fruit is about the size of a half dollar, scatter a heaping teaspoon of 5-10-5 fertilizer on the ground around each plant, work it into the top inch of soil and water thoroughly. Repeat once or twice a month thereafter. Poor foliage color and stunted growth indicate a need for fertilizer.

Too much nitrogen fertilizer, watering too often or allowing weeds that harbor insects and diseases to grow nearby can create serious problems. During the summer a mulch can help in preventing weeds, reducing water loss from the soil and stabilizing soil temperature. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption