For most tomato growers, it's time to get down to business.
It's the middle of May, when our plants should go into the ground, or containers, on their path to a juicy, flavorful August.
Whether you started your plants by seed a couple of months ago or opt to visit a garden center to buy your tomatoes, there are a few things you can do to ensure those seedlings will develop into robust, fruit-laden vines.
Get the timing right
Mid-May is prime time for many tomato growers to get their plants in the ground. The danger of frost has passed (fingers crossed), the soil is warming up, the days are long. An exception, though, would be those folks in more rural or northern climes.
"Out here in the Fox Valley, our last average frost date is much later than closer to the lake," said Linda Byrnes, manager of the annual department at The Growing Place in Aurora, Ill. "Frequently we can't plant till the 23rd of May. I don't put my tomatoes in the ground till Memorial Day, to be honest."
Planting in containers -- just about any variety of tomato will flourish in a 3- to 5-gallon pot or tub -- can eliminate worries about frost and thus lets you plant sooner. The dirt in a container warms more quickly and, another growing plus, you can haul them into the garage if frost is forecast.
And don't consider Memorial Day an absolute planting deadline. Whether you opt for in-ground or container farming, you can plant as late as mid-July and still harvest fruit.
Pick your plant
Common sense rules the day if you're buying transplants.
Scrawny, dried-out or yellow plants don't make the grade, especially when garden centers are chockablock with healthy, dark green specimens. But avoid plants that have started flowering or fruiting; transplant shock will just set them back.
And then, all things being equal, go for the gusto.
"A young plant is fine," says Dan Biernacki, whose family owns Ted's Greenhouse in Tinley Park, Ill. "There's nothing wrong with a young plant. But faced with the choice of the teeny-weeny one or the big old hairy one, if you want tomatoes quicker, you take the big old hairy one."
He also has kind words for those ugly seedlings that are crowded into containers and have become root-bound and are starting to sprout aerial roots or have knobs on their stems.
"Those knobs are potential roots," he says. "They just need to be underground. So that plant, though it might look absolutely nasty, as long as it's green and healthy, it's going to give you a bigger jump-start."
Hit the dirt
The next step is pretty simple, really. Seedling, meet dirt. Dirt, meet seedling.
Biernacki recommends digging a trench rather than going straight down. You're not going as deep, where the dirt would be cooler. And when you use a trench, you lay the plant out on its side, then fill in the dirt, leaving just the top couple of inches of plant above ground. All that buried stalk will then sprout roots.
Plants should be about 3 feet apart. They need room to grow and enough space for air to circulate around them. You also want to be able to get in there at harvest time.
There are a couple of schools of thought on fertilizer. Fertilize now, and you may just be promoting the growth of lots of leaves. Wait till fruit starts appearing, and the nutrients go where God intended.
For containers, Biernacki says you should bury that tomato as deep as you can. At Ted's Greenhouse, they will take 12- to 15-inch plants "and we shove them right to the bottom of the pot. It gives you a bigger root system."
Give it support
Back in the day, tall wooden stakes worked just fine. But wire cages are better.
"Personally, I like the convenience of caging because I don't have to keep going out and tying it to the stake when the plant grows another 6 inches," Byrnes says. "The plant gets enough (air) circulation, and you're not breaking the branches when you stake them."
Start when the plants are young. If you wait until they are growing and big, you risk severing their roots when you start driving stakes.
Garden centers offer wooden stakes -- big twist-ties, especially those made of string or old nylons, can be used to tie up the vines -- as well as a variety of cages.
Biernacki makes his own, using pig wire. He works a section into a circle around a plant, secures it so it won't spring open, then puts stakes on either side to support it. The wire is heavy enough to hold the fruit, the cage has enough heft to withstand any summer storm, and the holes are big enough for you to reach in and pluck a tomato when the time comes.
TOMATO GROWING TIPS
* Buy your crops in thirds. Planting everything at once means a sudden bounty one month and slim pickings the next.
* Beware of frost. If plants are in containers, bring them inside for the night. For plants in the ground, cover them with newspapers, cardboard, plastic sheeting or some other light material at night. For small plants, a glass jar or plastic milk jug with the bottom removed can provide protection -- but remember to uncover the plants first thing in the morning.
Once plants are about 3 feet tall, remove the leaves from the bottom foot of the stem. That's where fungus problems usually start.
* Water evenly and regularly. Irregular watering (such as skipping a week and trying to compensate later), can lead to blossom end rot, caused by a plant's inability to pick up calcium.
"Typically, if a plant is left on its own in the ground, it can get its own water," said Dan Biernacki of Ted's Greenhouse in Tinley Park. "Very rarely would a summer be so dry that it couldn't get enough water to survive. But if it is very dry, then all of a sudden you get a lot of rain, that stresses the plant and it can't pick up calcium, and that causes blossom end rot. So it's best to keep them evenly watered."