Follow these guidelines for juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes.

We get tired of having to eat the mealy winter impersonators. That's why every spring and summer, Southerners set out tomatoes in pots on porches or any place we can squeeze a few plants into our yards. Here are some tips for growing summer's favorite flavor.

  • Plan your garden before you plant it. Choose a location that receives a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight. Put stakes in the ground before you even plant your tomatoes. That way you can drive in stakes with no risk of injury to the young plant roots. Metal reinforcing rods work well holding up top-heavy tomato plants; they are easy to drive into the ground and won't rot. Many people prefer wire cages. These cages work fine, but make sure they are secured to the ground with small stakes to prevent them from turning over.
  • Tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors from the giant Big Beef to the tiny, tasty Sweet Million. The small cherry type of tomatoes needs less space and works well in small gardens.
  • Choose the plant that's right for you. There are two kinds of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants grow short and bushy, and all their fruit ripens at once. These plants work well in cages and are convenient for canning. Some popular varieties include Celebrity, Floramerica, Heatwave, and Roma. Indeterminate tomato plants are tall and vinelike, needing strong stakes. They tend to have a longer, more spread out fruiting period. Some of the popular indeterminate tomatoes are Early Girl, Better Boy, Big Beef, and Lemon Boy.

If you don't want to grow tomatoes from seed, buy healthy-looking, stocky transplants from a reputable garden center. Lightly brush the tops of young plants with your hand before you buy them. If small, white flying insects appear, the plants probably have whiteflies. You don't want to introduce these pests to your garden. Avoid buying transplants that already have flowers or fruit because young plants need all their energy for root and plant growth.

  • Make sure your soil is loose and fertile. Plant transplants deep. This allows them to grow lots of roots. Pinch off all but the top four leaves. Leave only the leafy tops above ground. Roots will soon develop along the buried stem.
  • To boost young plants, feed with 20-20-20 liquid fertilizer according to label directions until fruit appears; then fertilize with a slow-release, general-purpose granular fertilizer, such as 10-40-10, every four weeks. One handful per plant should do. Water plants thoroughly after each application.
  • Watch your tomato plants carefully. If they look wilted in the middle of the day, it's okay. If they're wilted early in the morning, they need water. Apply 2 to 3 inches of mulch to prevent any soilborne diseases from splashing on them during heavy rains. Avoid watering from overhead. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses are better alternatives for your plants and are also a more effective way to water. Remove any diseased or insect-infested leaves or limbs immediately, so that the problem won't spread throughout the plant.
  • If you're not using cages, tie plants to a stake once they grow about 2 feet tall. Plants grown in cages might have to be guided and tied to the sides of the cages every now and then. Use biodegradable twine to tie plants to the stake about every 12 to 18 inches. This keeps them tight to the support. It's better to tie your tomatoes as they grow, not once they've fallen over.
  • If your plants outgrow their stakes, you can cut off the tops and pinch off blooms. This will allow fruit that has already set to mature quickly and will increase the size of your tomatoes.
  • Be sure to plant a second crop--two or three plants--in midsummer to extend your season into autumn. Don't miss out on the experience of growing your own tomatoes. Plant a few different selections and see which ones work best for you and your taste buds.

"Tomato Growing Tips" is from the Southern Living Garden Guide 2000 edition.