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Tomatoes 101: Don't crowd, water well, keep leaves dry

Except for my little brother at the age of 4, I don't know anyone who doesn't salivate over a sweet, juicy tomato fresh off the vine.

The closest that he allowed a tomato to get to his tongue was that orange liquid in a can of animal-shaped pasta. He hated the texture and taste of tomatoes and, in hindsight, I can't say I blame him. In fact, I half-expect the tomato gods to strike me down any minute now for even vaguely associating those mealy supermarket blobs with the real thing. Blasphemy.

As dramatic as it sounds, real tomatoes are a religion among gardeners and food lovers, prone to the same kind of rabid fanaticism as that aroused by fine wines and artisan cheese. Count me among the believers.

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My desert island plant is a tomato, hands down. Just don't ask me to choose one variety with so many great ones available. 'Zapotec Pink Pleated' and 'Black Krim' are in the running, but only under duress.

Some time ago, my tomato-averse brother found the spirit as well - guess who grew his own tomatoes for the first time last year? Well, until the squirrels got them. His first lesson in successful soil slinging was also one in the perils of urban agriculture. And if he can grow tomatoes (critters aside) in a pot on a tiny balcony, you can too. Here's how:

The first thing to know when growing a tomato is whether you are growing a determinate or an indeterminate plant. There are other categories, but these are the two to remember. Determinate plants grow to a set height and stop, but indeterminates have a vining habit and can grow sky high - probably not the best choice for a Juliet balcony, but doable with the right-sized pot.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need an in-ground garden to grow big guys such as 'Brandywine,' 'Cherokee Purple' and 'Yellow Pear' - just a very big pot. A 16-inch or larger garbage bin can support their big roots. That said, the bushing habit of a determinate variety may be more your speed on the first time out. 'Black Seaman,' 'Silver Fir Tree,' 'Whippersnapper' and 'Czech's Bush' are personal favourites. Grow them in pots that are around 12 inches tall or, if space is tight, opt for diminutive plants with names like 'Tiny Tim' and 'Tumbling Tom,' which have been bred for life in hanging baskets and window boxes.

Whatever you do, never put more than one tomato plant in a pot. Growing closely is fine in the ground, but tomatoes are notoriously hungry plants that need a lot of water and nutrition. Pots simply can't sustain that kind of pressure - you're better off with one happy plant than two pathetic ones. However, you may add easy-going leafy plants such as lettuce, basil or parsley to the mix. Even flowers like marigolds or calendula will do - just stay away from peppers, cucumbers or any plant that makes fruit.

Whether they are in a pot or in the ground, give your tomatoes a lot of water, really soaking the soil every time. Most problems can be prevented if you avoid wetting the leaves. I water my plants biweekly with a mixture of diluted milk (it's an anti-fungal) and sea kelp fertilizer added in for extra assurance.

As for nutrition, adding lots of compost to the soil is key. Your plants will appreciate extra nitrogen (fish emulsion and compost) to grow lush leaves while they're still young. A luxurious plant with no fruit is a sure sign of too much nitrogen, so cut back around July to give yours a chance to switch gears and grow lots of mouth-watering fruit.

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For more gardening tips, visit Gayla Trail's website,

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