Tomatoes are easy to grow—as long as you follow the rules.
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In the South, we recognize our changing seasons not only by the fluctuations in the weather (however slight they may be), but also by the different produce that appears in farmers' markets. If the sweet strawberry is the official harbinger of spring, then the tomato proclaims the arrival of summer as loudly as the bugler who opens the Kentucky Derby. In these warm-weather months, there is hardly a meal served that does not include a tomato; they're baked into a cheesy tomato tart, sliced into seasonal salads, or showcased in an iconic BLT.

The beloved tomato is popular not only to eat, but also to grow in home gardens. It has been said that a tomato plant is one of the easiest to grow, and that's true as long as you follow proper care and maintenance guidelines. For instance, irregular watering (giving them too much water or not enough) can quickly ruin your tomato plants. Before you start planting, select a variety that grows well in your area, your local garden center or cooperative extension service will likely have suggestions. Read on for five common mistakes to avoid when growing tomatoes.

Irregular Watering

Like all plants, tomatoes need consistent moisture; keep the soil wet enough to prevent wilting but not so wet that the roots develop soggy feet. Garden tomatoes require generally 1 to 2 inches of water per week, but that can change depending on weather conditions (such as excessive drought) and the size of the plant. When the plants are young, drip irrigation is preferred because it can help avoid strong streams of water that erode the soil. As the tomato plants mature, water more slowly and deeply. The roots of a tomato plant can grow 2 to 3 feet deep in loose soil, so the plant needs to be watered around 18 inches deep. This is especially important in the summer heat. Remember, irregular moisture swings, and dry soil can lead to problems such as blossom-end rot and fruit splitting.

Improper Spacing

First, a quick lesson on the two types of tomatoes: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow about 3 feet tall and begin to set flowers for fruit. They can be managed easily in a backyard garden and in containers. Indeterminate tomatoes produce both new leaves and flowers, and they should be staked or started in tomato cages. Unless damaged by disease or insects, indeterminate tomato plants will continue to grow and produce fruit throughout summer and into early fall. Know your plant's type before placing it in a container or in the ground, and make allowances for its growth pattern. If plants are spaced too closely, either in a pot or bed, they will crowd each other and restrict air flow, sunlight, and water supply.

Too Much Fertilizer

It is advisable to provide additional nitrogen and nutrients to tomatoes after transplanting and once the plants begin to produce fruit. Adding too much nitrogen, however, can result in rapid growth of lush, carbohydrate-loaded leaves that attract insect infestation and can slow or reduce yields. Reduce or discontinue fertilizing with nitrogen after early summer to avoid growth spurts and an overly leafy plant that will wilt during the season's heat.

Improper Pruning

Determinate tomatoes don't need pruning because it may reduce their harvest. Prune indeterminate varieties to improve airflow; this keeps air and sunshine flowing freely in and around the plants and helps prevent disease. Pruning also increases more yield per plant and helps with producing larger fruit. Pinch indeterminate varieties back when they reach about 8 inches tall. This will help to encourage lateral growth of the plant.

Not Using Mulch

One reason Southerners love tomatoes is because the plants do so well in the heat. The soil around the plants should be kept moist and cool, however. Dry soil can lead to dry and diseased plants. Layer mulch 2 to 4 inches deep around the plant and pull it back about 2 inches from the stem itself. Form a small "moat" with the mulch, which will allow for water to get deep into the roots. Mulching not only holds in moisture but helps to control weeds and prevent the spread of disease.