* Choose the tomato variety -- from among thousands! -- that you like best and that will suit your needs. Beef tomatoes are meaty, and the little Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes burst with sugary flavor. Buy seedlings at a reputable nursery or farmers market or, if you prefer, buy seeds -- they are cheaper but take more patience and attention.
* Replant seedlings soon, giving them as much space as possible. Be sure to choose an area with good drainage.
* Pick a sunny spot with lots of growing room for the vines and the roots. Tomatoes need at least six to eight hours of sun each day and full sun is best, especially in Pleasanton where evening temperatures are cooler. A south-facing wall where the ground doesn't get boggy would be ideal.
* For the first few weeks, watch out for birds pecking at the seedlings and be careful to water at least once a day, making sure that excess water drains away so the roots don't rot. The plants can be protected against birds by placing chicken wire over the top of the area but make sure it doesn't touch the seedlings. Slugs can be discouraged with salt barriers or beer traps.
* The tomatoes will be ready for picking around late summer. Until then, be patient and remember to water them more as they grow bigger. Tomato plants can get as large as 5 feet, and as the fruit appears the plants will need support to stay off the ground. It can be simple, just a couple of sticks and a few strings, but take care not to harm the branches.
* Picking the tomatoes depends on the type you have chosen but they should have some yellow and maybe a little red on them. If you pick one a little early, leave it to ripen on a windowsill and it will be ready to eat in two or three days.
If you don't have room in your yard for a garden, consider Pleasanton's community garden program at Val Vista Park, where residents pay a nominal fee to grow vegetables and fruits. Send in an application to be placed on a waitlist or call coordinator Kathy Southern at 997-3186.