"Home-grown tomatoes, home-grown tomatoes, where would life be without home-grown tomatoes?" These words from an obscure folk song echo the sentiments of many gardeners. In fact, tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable planted in America with more gardeners growing them than any other plant. Tomatoes are reasonably easy to grow and very productive. Most importantly, home-grown tomatoes have a flavor and quality that simply cannot be matched by the artificially ripened, tasteless, imported tomatoes we've had all winter.

Early Americans often grew tomatoes as ornamental plants, but they were considered to be highly poisonous and were not eaten. Fortunately, that bit of folklore has passed and we enjoy them either alone or in a variety of foods. Successful tomato production requires more than just grabbing a few plants and throwing them in the ground. Those plants produce, but to get the best production and quality requires more careful selection.The first step to good tomato production is selecting the right variety. The right variety depends on the fruit use. Tomatoes come in sizes ranging from small marble-size cherry tomatoes to giant tomatoes measuring 6 inches or more across. In addition to the traditional round tomatoes, pear tomatoes and oblong paste tomatoes are popular. Tomatoes come in red, pink, yellow, gold and white.

Determinate varieties grow to a certain size and then the fruit ripens all at once. Indeterminate varieties grow indefinitely, and are excellent for growing in cages and/or staking. Consider how you will use the tomatoes. Small cherry tomatoes are excellent for salads, medium or large tomatoes are for slicing. Canning tomatoes have more solid matter so they make a better canned product, while paste tomatoes are used for tomato sauces and puree.

Suggested tomato varieties

- Cherry: Presto Hybrid, Sweet 100 Hybrid, Sweet Million Hybrid, Toy Boy Hybrid.

- Medium-size: Red King Hybrid, Celebrity Hybrid, Early Girl, Early Cascade, Roza (Curly Top Resistant)

- Large fruit: Red Express Hybrid, DX 52-12, Pole King Hybrid, Jet Star, Celebrity

- Large firm: Fresh Pak Hybrid, Red Pik

- Paste: Square Paste, Royal Chico, Roma VF

Tomatoes do best in full sun. They are a warm season plant and require warm air and soil temperatures. Plant after all danger of frost has passed and after the soil temperatures have reached 55 degrees F. Don't jump the growing season unless you use Wall of Waters or another method to increase the temperatures. Tomatoes tolerate a wide variety of soils and can be grown successfully on sand, loam or heavy clay soils. Tomatoes also make good container plants for those gardeners with small patios and no garden area.

Fertilize with a complete fertilizer at planting time. Be careful not to overfertilize with nitrogen fertilizer. Excessive nitrogen fertilizer produces an abundance of vine and little if any fruit. Place a handful of 16-16-8 or similar type complete fertilizer to the side and deeper than the root ball of the plant. This provides adequate fertilizer for most plants in well-prepared garden soils. Liquid starter fertilizer, as you transplant, helps the plants get off to a good start.

Tomatoes are also very tolerant of most types of irrigation. Sprinkling, furrow or drip all produce successful tomatoes. Tomatoes should be watered deeply and infrequently, but the soil moisture supply should be kept fairly constant.

An important part of selecting the right variety is selecting for disease resistance. Most of the better varieties of tomatoes say VF resistant. This means the plants are resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt, two serious soilborne diseases. Resistance does not mean immunity, and the plants may still succumb to those diseases. Other tomato varieties are listed VFTN resistant, meaning that they are resistant not only to the verticillium and fusarium organisms, but also the tobacco mosaic virus and nematodes. Tobacco mosaic virus is spread from tobacco to tomatoes and is a serious but infrequent disease in Utah.

Another serious disease that affects tomato plants each year is curly top. This disease is spread by the sugar beet leafhopper and is characterized by curled leaves and purple veins. The varieties that are resistant to this particular disease are not as good as the other varieties in the chart. I prefer to plant extra of the better varieties and realize that some are going to succumb to this and other problems.

Select the tomato varieties carefully, plant them at the right time and in the right place, give them a little fertilizer and they will reward you with continuous supply of tomatoes until frost. Tomatoes are one of the best reasons to grow a backyard garden.

- DRIP IRRIGATION WORKSHOP: Thursday, May 16, 7-8:30 p.m., County Government Center, 2001 S. State S1007-08.

- ARBORETUM PLANT SALE: Saturday, May 18, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 581-5322 for additional information.