First things first…what should you grow?
If you only have room for one or two plants, I think the best way to start is with mouth-popping-sized cherry tomatoes. They are easy to eat and provide plenty of fruit to share. My favorites are the bright orange Sun Golds and the ping pong sized Camp Joy variety.
Sun Golds are the sweetest most delicious small tomato that you will never find in a grocery store. They have a tendency to split open as they ripen and so aren't offered commercially, but in your garden you catch them at ripe perfection. They are so sweet, my children sneak into the garden to eat them straight from the vine instead of coming inside for a play time snack. Camp Joy (baby plants - called 'starts', are available from White Flower Farm) is also sweet but also has that perfect full mouth tomato taste. If you grow nothing else, the taste of these two will make sure you become a life long fresh tomato aficionado.
Sun Golds are hybrids and 'Camp Joy' is an heirloom variety. How To Grow Tomatoes has a great explanation of the difference between hybrids and heirlooms. You ought to plant a mix of each to guarantee growing success.
No one has written more helpfully on the topic of tomato growing than Margaret Roach. She covers the basics and provides enough encouragement to get you going.
My favorite new tip that I plan to try out this season come from Roberta Floden at the San Franciso Gate. She says, "When transplanting tomatoes, crumple a sheet of newspaper, wet it thoroughly and place it at the bottom of the hole into which you are placing your tomato. This will give the roots an early supply of moisture. Then bury the plant either sideways or up to its neck so that just an inch or two is above the surface."
But my best growing tip ever came after years of frustration with starting seeds indoors. (I have kids and cats and no patience for a project which involves keeping both little fingers and paws out of dirt trays in my living room). I decided to have a frank talk with the big tomato seller at my farmers market. She has been growing and selling tomatoes at her farm stand for nearly 30 years. She informed me that tomato growers have not the time or space to be coddling baby plants and starting seeds indoors. "Put the seeds in the ground and water them" she said. Which I did, and for the last two years I have proved her point, that by late July, I can't tell the difference between those plants started indoors in April and those that were planted by seed straight in the ground in mid to late May.
There is a whole world of tomatoes out there and you can never know it all. I have been growing vegetables for most of my life, but still haven't honed in on the best tomato variety for making my favorite fried green tomato sandwiches. Last year I tried Green Zebra's and while they were wonderful, I think there is something better out there (bigger and more firm). So have fun experimenting and remember, there is always next season to correct mistakes.
Do you have a favorite variety or tip to share?