Most people I talk to start gardening because they love one thing more than anything else. Home grown tomatoes. They are wonderful. Even if this is the only thing you have in your garden it is worth it. If you have nice black dirt you can likely get away with just tossing a tomato plant in the ground, giving it some water and you’ll get some fruit. However, if you plant it right and care for it, you will get enough tomatoes for you, your neighbor and his neighbor.
The first thing you want to do is figure out if you want a determinate or indeterminate plant. A determinate plant will only grow to a certain height and all of it’s fruit will ripen right around the same time. The benefit of these is that if you wish to do some canning, you will get all of your fruit at once. Also, these plants won’t get huge so caging them is much easier. If you want to eat on the plant for the summer, you want to stay away from this kind of tomato and get an indeterminate. Indeterminates will continue to grow and will keep putting out flowers until the end of the season so the fruit does not all ripen at the same time. These are great for salads and tomato sandwiches as you will keep getting tomatoes for quite some time. The problem is that these can get very tall and you will need to cage and/or stake them. Even then, some varieties will still get so tall that they will be flopping over by the end of the summer. They will look gnarly, but it’s very much worth it.
When you plant tomatoes, you want to remove the bottom two leaves and dig the whole deep enough to bury the stem up to the remaining leaves (This is relevant especially if you buy plants instead of starting them from seed. I start mine from seed and the seedlings are not big enough to do this. I compensate by planting a very good part of the stem in the ground). This will help the give the tomatoes a much better root system as roots will develop all over the buried stem. The lady in the following video also recommends placing bone meal in with the plant. As she explains, this is different than regular fertilizer in that it helps to produce more fruit, not more leaves, as nitrogen does. I usually do not do this step as my dog will proceed to dig up the plant to lap up the bone meal (which is really fun seeing your favorite summer plant pulled straight out by the roots and having a puking dog for the next two days). I do amend the soil with some epsom salts and have found a liquid fertilizer that I will be trying this year to avoid the sick dog.
Another thing one wants to make sure to do with indeterminate tomato plants is to remove the suckers as the plant grows. This makes sure that most of the energy from the plant goes into producing flowers and fruit and not producing more stems. Also, it makes the indeterminate far less sprawling and easier to care for by the end of the summer. A sucker happens when a third stem begins where the main trunk and an existing stem meet. You will be able to see it well in the following video.
As the summer proceeds, tomatoes need a good bit of fertilizer. They are notorious for sucking nutrition from the soil. They are a plant that, if you have the space, should be rotated because of how much nutrition they require (also, to prevent the spread of disease). If you can’t rotate, it’s not really too big of a deal, just make sure you fertilize when you first plant and throughout the summer.
Something else to consider while planing tomatoes is where to put some basil (which grows really well in a pot). You know those truly amazing tomato and mayo sandwiches? They are even better with some basil leaves on top.
** A special note to Perigrine John and anyone else who lives in very hot and dry conditions. John, you mentioned that you lose your seedlings because of over watering. I was thinking about this and I remembered that last year I tried one of these (There are different kinds. If you are interested, you may want to look at all of them). They require very little extra watering on your part. It may solve your damping off problem.