Tomatoes are America's No. 1 garden crop. In fact, homegrown tomatoes are almost synonymous with home gardening, and a recent Gallup Poll reported that 90 percent of all American gardeners grow this tropical fruit.
We usually eat tomatoes as vegetables, but technically they're fruits because they're plant ovaries, containing seed. They're tropical because they originated in Peru, but came to us from Mexico, and the name we call them comes from a Mayan word, tomatl.
Tomatoes have to be coaxed and coddled early in their lives in northern climates, but once frost has finished its work and tomatoes become established they can practically take care of themselves.
In New Jersey, it's sometimes hard to believe they're not native plants. I've seen volunteers grow out of compost, thrive like weeds, and bear fruit late in the season. No matter where you live, though, it helps to start with the right kinds of tomatoes. If your season is long, plant several kinds -- short-, middle- and late-season, and they won't all ripen at once.
If your soil harbors verticillum or fusarium wilt, diseases that can devastate tomatoes, plant resistant varieties.
Tomatoe plants are set outside after all danger of frost has passed, and need a sunny spot and a soil rich in organic matter. Like most garden vegetables, they need good drainage and a neutral to slightly alkaline soil. Unlike most other vegetable plants, which are never planted too deeply, tomatoes do best when they're planted with a good bit of stem below the soil. This buried stem puts out roots, which make stronger, more drought-resistant plants.
The way I usually do it is to dig a hole three or four times larger than the pots in which the tomatoes have grown. I fill this hole with a mixture of compost and bone meal, because the compost will feed the tomatoes and the bone meal will supply phosphorus to help them ripen early.
The plants should be set out late in the day, watered well, and shaded for a day or two until they adjust to their new spots. If you plan to stake them, you can set them about 18 inches apart, but be sure to put the stakes in before the tomatoes so you don't damage the roots. To let tomatoes ramble, allow at least two feet between plants, because they'll spread out instead of up.
Staked tomatoes, which are pruned to one stem, will produce fewer tomatoes than unstaked and unpruned, but they'll be bigger. The main problem with letting tomatoes ramble is that it makes it easier for slugs to eat them. If you live in an area where slugs abound, try to at least lift your tomatoes a little bit above the ground.
Tomatoes do well with a mulch, which, by keeping moisture even, helps to prevent blossom-end rot, and keep weeds down. If you opt for black plastic, put it down early and it will warm the soil. If you choose an organic mulch, like hay, wait until the plants flower to day it down.
Aside from slugs, which love tomatoes, and which can be trapped in cups of beer, the main insect problem is the tomato horn worm. These are big, and exactly the shade of green of tomato foilage. They can strip the leaves in no time. Because they're large and usually not too numerous, you can hand-pick them. Then all you have to do is watch and wait. Try to feed tomatoes in midsummer, with some mix of rotted manure, compost and bone meal, either scratched into the soil or mixed in water.
And, because all of this effort is for the pleasure of eating vine-ripened tomatoes, wait until they're bright red, ripe and juicy. They pick them, settle down and enjoy.