Growing tomatoes must be a lot like raising a child. First, you have to give the tiny plants (or seeds, if you are so bold) a good foundation, a place where they can really take root. And then the real fun starts. Though they are continually silent, you need to water the plants often -- unfortunately, no crying or whining will tip you off here, only gardener's intuition. But watch out: Like the worst bullies, the rabbits, insects and birds will come along and try to pick at and destroy your precious tiny Tom-Tom. If he's not carefully protected, the bad guys will win, so you should cordon off a safe area for him to grow, without smothering him (you don't want to be one of those overprotective types). Then eventually, when the sun shines, so will little Tommy. He'll grow and flourish and eventually get a bit of a sunburn, a healthy deep-red kind of glow. It is at this critical point that you must free him from the vine; if you leave him alone too long, he'll turn bad, just like a teenager trying to get attention. But unlike some acting-out brats who have the privilege of reform school, it will be too late for your little Tom-Tom.
If you've made it through these steps thus far as a parent -- er, gardener -- you should be more than willing to prove yourself this Saturday, July 30, at the NatureSweet Best Homegrown Tomato Challenge. There, your little Tom A. Toe (he prefers this to Tom-Tom these days) will compete against others to determine which tomatoes -- and which grower -- are the best. This event promises to have all the fierce competition of Little League, but with actual money on the line -- a $5,000 "scholarship" for the first-place winner, to be exact. And all you have to do is bring three of your best homegrown tomatoes of the same variety to the Missouri Botanical Garden (4344 Shaw Boulevard) between 10 and 11 a.m., and wait until noon to hear how your offspring stands up to the tomatoes of others when judged on their sugar content, overall appearance and taste. You're already convinced that your Tommy Toes are the purtiest, sweetest, yummiest guys around, so you're not too worried (but those local celebrity judges better be if they don't agree with you). For more information on the contest or to pre-register, visit www.naturesweettomatoes.com or call 800-315-8209.