In the minds of many of my gardening friends, a gardener’s credentials are built on what’s grown for the dinner plate. It doesn’t matter that I grew all the flowers for my son’s wedding. If they’re not served in a salad, I will always come up short in their ratings.

In my family, gardening is a competitive sport, and I’m taking on the quintessential summer crop. I want to grow tomatoes more delicious than any my husband has ever produced. I’m drawn to heirlooms, with flesh that can be purple, gold, green-striped or orange. But regardless of the variety, whether a tall, lanky indeterminate that grows and set fruits continually for a long harvest, or a compact determinate that sets fruit all at once, how a tomato is grown can make a difference in flavor.

Well-drained, humus-rich soil is essential. In cool weather, spread black plastic over the bed a week before planting to soak up solar energy and increase the soil temperature. Tomatoes refuse to grow and set fruit until the soil warms to at least 60 degrees, and a week of cool daytime temperatures (below 55 degrees) can stunt plants and reduce yields. Ideal temperatures are in the 80s during the day and the 50s or 60s at night. Tomatoes may have trouble setting fruit in much higher temperatures. At least eight hours of intense sunlight maximizes photosynthesis as well as flavor.

Stay ahead of soil-borne diseases and pests with crop rotation. Each year, plant where tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes or peppers haven’t grown in three or more years. Some hybrid varieties have been bred to resist verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus, and alternaria leaf spot and will be tagged “VFFNTA.”

Tomatoes develop roots all along their stem, so I’m planting them in a shallow trench (as deep as the seedlings’ rootball is wide) where the soil is warmer than in a deep hole. Snip off all but the top three sets of leaves and lay the plants horizontally in the trench, spacing determinates 18 to 24 inches apart, and allowing 24 to 36 inches between indeterminates. Prop up the tops as you fill in, and don’t worry; the stems will straighten up as they grow. Season extenders, such as row covers or Wall-of-Waters protect seedlings from late frosts. Wait to lay a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch until the soil warms to a consistent 70 degrees. Mulching can keep weeds from germinating and can also prevent blossom end rot, a calcium deficiency that is worsened by uneven levels of soil moisture.

Tomatoes should be caged or staked to avoid disease and rotting fruit. Make stakes from rebar or wood, at least 6-feet long for indeterminates. Construct sturdy cages from livestock panels to keep tomatoes upright without tying. Wrapping the cages with plastic sheeting can provide protection early in the growing season. Instructions are available at

When the plants have gained height and begin to branch out, pinch off most of the sucker shoots that sprout from the V-shaped intersections of the main stem and branches. This directs the plant’s energy into a strong branching system that will supply and support a good crop, and allows air circulation and plenty of light.

Tomatoes need a steady supply of up to 2 to 3 inches of water a week in hot weather, and drip irrigation is preferred, since wet foliage can host diseases. As soon as the plants begin to flower, side-dress them every three weeks with fertilizer that has phosphorus as the key ingredient. Too much nitrogen will leave you with lush foliage and few tomatoes.

Get more from your garden space by planting baby greens, radishes or cilantro in the cool, moist microclimate under the tomato plant. Four to six weeks before the first frost, pinch off all growing tips so the plant’s energy can go into ripening existing tomatoes. Late in the season, remove some foliage for more sun exposure, and hold back on water to stress the plant into ripening green fruit.

If you see a hornworm dining on tomato foliage, squish ’em. Leaf curl, blossom-end rot and cracking are often tied to sudden changes in soil moisture, so keep it even, although certain varieties, including many heirlooms and beefsteaks, nearly always crack as they ripen.

If you want to grow the first tomato in the neighborhood, choose varieties that mature in less than 60 days, though early maturing varieties don’t always win prizes for flavor. Brandywine, an heirloom that may be the best-tasting tomato ever, needs 85 days from transplanting to ripen. In the meantime, cherries and other small fruited tomatoes can be intensely flavorful and ripen more quickly than beefsteaks, making them a great “fast food.” Store tomatoes on the kitchen counter rather than in the refrigerator.

• Carol Barany and her husband, John, found paradise on 1 1/3 acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners. Contact her at