What's more delicious than a tomato from your own garden?

By Megan Cahn
February 15, 2019
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The difference between a home-grown and store-bought tomato is like comparing a cashmere throw to an airplane blanket. Biting into a salad made with tomatoes from your own garden is a sensory experience-one of summer's greatest pleasures. Though we're still in the dregs of winter, it's time to start preparing for this treat. Ahead, we layout exactly when and what you need to grow your own tomatoes this year. Trust us, your taste buds will thank you later.

Know Your Frost Date

The first thing to do when it comes to planting tomatoes happens in an unexpected place: your computer! When you plant depends on the last frost date in your area, so get googling. A good source is the Farmer's Almanac. Once you find your date, if you are starting from seeds, count five weeks back and mark your calendar. Garden expert, author and radio host, Charlie Nardozzi, says tomatoes need about four to six weeks of indoor growth before they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. This will end up being about a week after the last frost date. If you decided to start with plants, this is when you'll put them in the garden, too.

Pick Your Variety

Now that you know your date to sow seeds (five weeks before your last frost date), you can pick out your tomato seeds. Nardozzi loves heirlooms like Persimmon, Tasmanian Chocolate and Speckled Roman because of their vivid colors, unique shapes and of course, their taste. But classic cherry and beefsteak varieties are great, too. Decide if you want a determinate or indeterminate type, based on your space and how much effort you want to put in. Determinate varieties will grow to about two to three feet and then produce fruit, while indeterminate will continue to grow higher and produce more and more.

Sow the Seeds

Put the seeds in two inch by two inch biodegradable cowpots or even eggshells filled with moistened seed soil. Be sure to keep them in a warm place that gets at least six hours of sun and water them regularly (the same goes for when they are moved outside). Once the seedlings germinate, Nardozzi says to thin out the weaker of the two by cutting it with scissors close to ground level. Then let the remaining sprout grow until it is three times the height of the pot, about six inches. Now, transplant this seedling into a pot one size larger. Pro tip: For faster germination, place a heating mat for seedlings under the pots.

Harden Your Plants

Think of your plants as babies (or new parents) going out into the world, you've got to ease them into it. Start by bringing them outside in the shade for an hour or two, gradually increasing the time and the amount of sun over a week period, before you permanently plant them outdoors. "This will get them used to the sun and the wind," says Nardozzi.

Read Your Surroundings

When planting your tomatoes outside, don't feel beholden to the week after the last frost marker. When you plant should also depend on the spring weather, a common mistake is not considering what's happening outside. "Cold, rainy weather is a death knell for tomatoes," says Nardozzi. "Delay transplanting if that's what's happening at that time or protect them in the garden with fleece wraps."

Mix the Soil

Once your plant is hardened and the weather has warmed, it's time to take them out to the garden. If you are planting in the ground, it's a good idea to prepare the area about two weeks beforehand. Dig a hole about a foot deep and mix in some compost or manure. If you're planting them in a container, Nardozzi says to use a mix of potting soil and compost in the pot. Plant the seedling deep enough to cover the stem up to the first set of bottom leaves and water. Water it and fertilize with an organic plant food weekly for both plants in the ground or in a container.

Plan According to Size

An easy way to mess up your tomato situation is by planting them in a pot (one plant per pot!) that is too small or not using the caging or staking system for tall varieties, says Nardozzi. Pots should be 18 inches for determinate and 24 inches for indeterminate, and stakes or cages should be put in the ground when you plant them.

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