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Larry A. Sagers
Tomatoes may be started from seeds early in the spring. Prices may be higher than shown on these packages.

Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes

What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes?

Only two things that money can't buy:

That's true love and homegrown tomatoes

— Guy Clark

Singer Guy Clark is not alone in how he feels about tomatoes. They are the country's most popular garden vegetable — and they have that title for several reasons.

First and foremost is the taste and quality.

Home-grown tomatoes have lots of flavor, unlike store-bought tomatoes, which are picked when they're green, shipped hundreds of miles and then shut in a gas chamber to make them turn red.

Home-grown tomatoes are not hard and crunchy but juicy, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Many years ago, I heard a produce buyer from a major grocery chain describe what he, as a buyer, looked for in a tomato.

We were in a steeply stepped auditorium, and he said: "I want a tomato that I could take out of the crate, throw it and hit the bald-headed guy in the back row in the head and then have it roll back down the steps to me. I then want to be able to pick it up, sit it back on the produce counter and have it be saleable for two more weeks."

Needless to say, I was appalled. He obviously had no clue about why home-grown tomatoes are so good and why it is worth the time and effort to grow them.

Home-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes are a treat that can never be duplicated artificially.

Of course, there are other reasons why tomatoes are so popular.

Large, main-season varieties are capable of producing 20 or more pounds of fruit per plant if they are grown in good soil and properly cared for.

If these replace tomatoes that are selling for $2 per pound or more, that is a pretty good return on your investment.

Tomatoes are also popular because they keep producing throughout the growing season. Depending on the variety, they will start producing in July and finish in October. For several months, you can have fresh tomatoes from the garden.

For gardeners who are willing to protect their plants in the spring and fall, and harvest green tomatoes and ripen them off the vine, you might get fresh tomatoes for at least twice as long.

For the season-long production, chose indeterminate plants. These continue to grow and produce new fruits until frost. They are more productive if they are grown inside a cage or on a stake. They produce for a longer time, but there are fewer tomatoes that ripen at one time.

If you are looking for more tomatoes that ripen at once, consider some of the indeterminate varieties. These are usually canning-type tomatoes, and they set their fruit and ripen most of it at the same time.

While you can make tomato sauce out of any tomato, certain varieties are much easier to use, because they contain less water.

Roma, or paste tomatoes, ripen with less juice, so they do not require as much cooking to extract the water. Many people prefer these types to make salsa.

Tomatoes need abundant sunshine to produce a good crop. They prefer good, well-drained soil and tolerate our alkaline soils quite well.

Tomatoes are warm-season crops, so plant them after the danger of frost is past. Depending on the year and where you live, this is usually about May 10. Always be prepared to cover the plants if frost threatens.

Tomatoes need a slightly different fertilizer program than most other garden vegetables. Avoid adding too much nitrogen fertilizer, because that stimulates excessive green growth at the expense of good fruit production. Big, large tomato vines are not any use when they have no fruit.

The most frequent question about tomatoes I get is, "What is the best tomato?"

That's difficult to answer, so I usually say it is whatever one is ripe in the garden or on the plate in front of me.

With a staggering 4,000 varieties, choices are not easy. Heirloom tomatoes often have excellent flavor but very poor disease resistance. Newer hybrids are resistant to many serious diseases, so that makes them better choices if you have those problems in your garden.

These are some recommended varieties that produce well in our area:

Cherry types include Presto, Sweet 100, Sweet Million and Sun Sugar.

Medium-size fruit varieties include Early Cascade, Early Girl and Longkeeper.

Large-fruit varieties include Celebrity, Hamson or DX52-12, Jet Star and Fantastic.

Paste-tomato varieties include Roma and Royal Chico.

Keep in mind these are not the only choices. Check with local gardeners, nurseries and growers to find others that grow well here and have the taste you want. Get them planted and don't miss out on harvesting these treats from your garden this year.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.