At long last it's time to plant tomatoes, now that the weather statistics say it probably won't snow or freeze again until fall.
If you're among those who ran out during a hot day in April to buy the first plant in the garden center, then wondered why it died in your garden, try again now that the weather is reliably warm. Tomatoes are tropical plants and will grow for us only when we can fool them into thinking they're back home.
When you're buying plants, look for healthy-looking ones with thick stems rather than tall spindly stems. And choose a variety that will give you the kind of tomato you want. For the earliest tomatoes, pick a few plants of an early-maturing variety such as Early Girl, but buy a standard variety for the bulk of your crop.
Early-maturing tomatoes ripen in less than 64 days but run out of steam after producing for a few weeks. That's when the main crop variety -- something like Better Boy or Supersonic -- begins to produce.
There are a lot of new varieties bred for growing in containers or small spaces. Patio and Tiny Tim are two of them. Choose these if your space is limited or if you want to try growing your tomatoes in pots.
Plant a cherry-type for salads -- or to give yourself something to eat while you're working in the garden. Pop one in your mouth along with a fresh basil leaf.
The common wisdom for planting tomatoes is to dig a hole several inches deep and bury the plant nearly up to the leaves. The theory is that the stem will produce roots along its length and you'll end up with a stronger-rooted plant. But there's a problem. You may ultimately have a better plant, but it will take longer to get it. The deeper you go in the soil, the colder the temperature is. And a cold soil temperature will slow the growth of the plant.
A better idea is to plant the tomato on a slant so that the root system is about 4 inches below the surface but the stem is also buried so that it can develop roots along its length. You'll have to take care that the plants get enough water if we have a dry spell, but you'll have faster-growing plants and earlier tomatoes.
Water the tomatoes before trying to pull them out of their plastic pots. Peat pots, however, don't need to be removed, because they disintegrate after planting. You can add a high-phosphorus starter solution to the planting hole, but often store-bought plants have been already fertilized. For high yields, side-dress the plants with fertilizer when they have begun to produce their first fruit and again every six weeks during the season. Sprinkle some 5-10-10 or 6-12-12 in a circle around the stem and water it in, but be careful the fertilizer doesn't touch the stem.
In about a month, when the plants start to take off, mulch them to a depth of 3 to 6 inches with hay, straw or compost. This will protect them against blossom-end rot and help them survive any periods of drought. I usually plant my tomatoes about 3 feet apart and then surround them with cages made from concrete-reinforcing wire at the same time I mulch the plants.
While the garden centers have a number of tomato varieties to choose from, there are hundreds of others in the seed catalogs. If there's an unusual variety you've been longing to try, but you didn't get around to buying and starting the seeds weeks ago, don't despair. Run to the telephone now and order the seeds. If you plant them directly in the garden within the next couple of weeks, you'll still get enough tomatoes at the end of the season to get a good taste of that variety. It's a relatively painless way to experiment with new varieties.