WAHOOOOOO!!! It's spring! And that means people are calling in sick or faking their mother's funeral so they can get off work, rush to the garden center, and procure their tomato plants. But before buying yours, steer clear of the following common mistakes that could well make a funeral seem like a happy event.

Mistake #1. Buying plants that already have flowers or fruit. You don't want 'em. Why? Because you want plants that will put all of their energy during the first weeks after planting into growing roots, stems, and leaves -- not flowering or ripening fruit. Defer gratification now and you'll get lots more tomatoes later. As an option, pinch off any flowers or fruit before planting.

Mistake #2. Buying plants without checking them for hitchhiking insects, especially whiteflies. Whiteflies (below) look like little, white triangles and congregate in great masses on the undersides of the leaves, sucking the sap. Infested plants are basically non-salvageable. Lightly brush the foliage of any new plant before you buy. If you see any tiny, white triangles fly off, leave that plant behind and run very fast.

emDo not buy this plant! Photo:

Mistake #3. Leaving plants outside at night or planting them before checking your area's frost-free date. Frost kills tomato plants. Sure, you can cover them outside to protect against possible frost, if you know when that might happen. How can you find out? Come on, this is the digital age! Just Google your zip code and "last spring frost." Then you can go back to creating a new page on MySpace. (Just kidding -- I don't know what that is either.)

Mistake #4. Not taking heed of the basic type of tomato plant. Tomato plants are either determinant or indeterminate. A determinant tomato, like 'Celebrity,' 'Rutgers,' and 'Patio,' grows into a little bush and ripens its fruit all at once. Choose this kind for growing in small spaces or containers. An indeterminate tomato, like 'Better Boy' and 'Beefmaster,' grows nonstop like a vine, needs support to hold it up, and ripens fruit over a long period. Choose this kind for growing in cages where you have more room.

Mistake #5. Assuming that because heirloom tomatoes like 'Cherokee Purple' are trendy that they're easier to grow. They are not. They may look cool and taste great, but in general they're more susceptible to disease and weather than newer hybrids and also lower yielding. Just like heirloom people.

Mistake #6. Attempting to pay for your tomato plants with Traveler's Cheques. Nobody takes these any more. Stick to S&H Green Stamps.


Tell them you heard it here.