Thomas J. Story
JUMPSTART YOUR TOMATOES
In most of the West, set out seedlings in spring after danger of frost has passed. (In the low desert, plant after Labor Day ? spring planting doesn't work there because tomatoes won't set fruit above about 90?.) Choose a spot with full sun (at least eight hours a day is best), fertilize at planting and again in about two weeks, water sparingly but don't let plants wilt, and you'll get plenty of fruit two or three months later.
Beyond these basics, it always helps to dig 3 or 4 inches of compost into the top foot of soil before planting. The extra organic matter holds air, water, and nutrients better than most unamended soils, which promotes strong growth.
Tomato seedlings can be planted extra-deep to encourage stronger root growth. Bury plants so that the main stem is 2 or 3 inches belowground, and it will develop additional roots. Stake plants to keep ripening tomatoes off the ground, where they're prone to rot. We recommend using one of these two systems.
All the fussing done by tomato aficionado - pruning, elaborate tying and trellising, spraying with hormones - is designed to get sweeter or more fruit, extend the season, or deal with regional cultural challenges. You may eventually experiment with these things, but only after you've learned to love the scent of tomato leaves on your fingers and sampled a few different homegrown varieties.
SEED AND SEEDLING SOURCES
Nurseries are filled with seedlings in May. Plant them as soon as danger of frost has passed. You can also get mail-order seedlings from Laurel's Heirloom Tomato Plants; 310/534-8611, Natural Gardening Company; 707/766-9303, or White Flower Farm; 800/503-9624. For California, many types must be shipped prior to May 8, depending on the weather).
May is late to start tomatoes from seed, but if you have a long growing season, a warm spot in the garden (against a south-facing wall, for example), and act early in the month, you can still get a crop.
Here are some great Western seed sources:
Ed Hume Seeds (web orders only)
Gary Ibsen's TomatoFest (web orders only)
Nichols Garden Nursery; 800/422-3985
Peters Seed (web orders only)
Seeds of Change; 888/762-7333
Tomato Growers Supply Company; 888/478-7333