Follow these tips to grow better tomatoes

The tomato is the No. 1 vegetable in our gardens. It’s the highest yielded and consumed in snacking, salads, canning, salsa, drying and bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches. I relish that first tomato each summer.

But the tomato hasn’t always had this status. The tomato originated in South America. Explorers took it to Spain and it became a landscape plant in Europe.

Early botanists described it as poisonous because it’s related to the nightshade family but loved its ornamental value.

An American colonist introduced it to our landscapes. In 1820 Col. Robert Johnson announced he was going to eat this poisonous fruit on the steps of his post office. More than 2,000 townspeople gathered to witness this horrible event, and his doctors pleaded with him not to eat it, but he did and lived. From this beginning, tomatoes grew to popularity.

If you want to raise tomatoes successfully, consider these points.

But first, I will be participating in a tomato seminar at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd. There’s a slight charge. Call 702-822-7700 for details.

■ Plant early: You can’t control the weather, so plant early to cope with the stress ahead. Tomato blossoms suffer but plants do all right. Providing shade during the summer will also help.

Tomato blossoms are fussy. They won’t set fruit above 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and above 76 at night. These temperatures burn up their energy and the flowers abort.

Here’s how to cope with the heat as it sets in to encourage more fruit to set on. Direct a strong jet of water at blossoms. The water cools the environment to force the temperature down. It also raises humidity for better fruit setting.

■ Proven varieties: Resist the urge to buy giant-size tomato plants. They are slow growers taking longer for fruit to set.

Consider these proven varieties: Early Girl, Patio, Champion, Celebrity, Floramerica, Better Boy, Heatwave, Hawaiian, Heartland and many others found at your nursery. Cherry varieties aren’t affected by the heat, so they’ll produce bushels.

Always include more than one variety. They tolerate different temperatures, meaning you’ll have a good supply for a longer harvest.

Choose short, blocky, healthy plants.

■ Tomatoes need sun: Select a location with at least six to eight hours of sunlight, preferably on the morning side of the house and afternoon shade. We have 150 days of temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, so you see the importance of afternoon shade.

■ Improve soil: Tomatoes love open, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter and a balanced vegetable fertilizer that emphasizes phosphorous. Phosphorous helps the plant develop roots, flowers and fruit. Blend them into the soil.

■ Raised beds: If you have bad soil, build a raised bed and fill it with composted soil. You now take control of your soil.

You don’t need to be a master builder to set up raised beds. You’ll get higher yields, convenience to working beds, much improved soil, a closer eye on your plants along with irrigation and neatness of the patch.

■ Container tomatoes: If you live in an apartment, townhouse, condominium, high-rise or have a small yard, you can grow tomatoes in containers. You don’t need much space, and they’re easy to grow.

■ Irrigation: After planting, irrigate your plants deeply and then don’t water again until they show signs of wilt. This will try your faith, but the roots are developing a deeper root system to cope with the heat ahead. Frequent waterings also cause blossom-end rot — a brown sunken area on the tomato’s blossom end.

■ Heavy feeder: Two weeks after planting, spray your plants with Super Bloom, which is high in phosphorous. The reason for quick spraying with this soluble fertilizer is the soils are still cool and it inhibits slow uptake of phosphorous so you’re getting immediate phosphorous intake. Repeat every two weeks to encourage early flowering and fruit set.

■ Mulching matters: Mulching tomatoes improves the number, size of fruit and health of your crop. But don’t mulch until the soil warms. If you mulch too soon, you’ll trap in the cold.

Follow these suggestions and you’ll be harvesting sometime after Memorial Day.