In the South, we recognize our changing seasons not just by the fluctuations (however slight they may be) in the weather, but by the different produce appearing in the 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 opens the Kentucky Derby. In these warm weather months, there is hardly a meal served that does not include a tomato; baked into a cheesy tomato tart, sliced into fresh, seasonal salads, or showcased in an iconic BLT, the beloved tomato is popular not just to eat, but to also grow in home gardens. It has been said that a tomato plant is the easiest plant to grow, and that is true as long as you follow proper care and maintenance guidelines. For instance, irregular watering can ruin your tomato plants fast, whether you water them too much or not enough. Read on and learn how you grow a beautiful tomato harvest by avoiding these 5 common mistakes:
Like all plants, tomato plants need consistent soil moisture; keep the soil wet enough to prevent wilting of the tomatoes but not so wet that the roots develop soggy feet. Garden tomatoes generally require 1-2 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 in order to avoid strong streams of water that erodes the soil. As the tomato plants mature, water more slowly and deeply. The roots of a tomato plant can grow 2-3 feet deep in loose soil, so the plant needs to be watered around 18” 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.
First, a quick lesson on the two types of tomatoes: Determinate and Indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow to about 3 feet in height and begin to set flowers for fruit. Determinate tomatoes can be easily well-managed in a home gardenand containers. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow and produce both new leaves and new flowers and should be staked or started in tomato cages. Unless damaged by disease or insects, indeterminate tomato plants will continue to grow and produce fruit all summer and into early fall. Know your tomato type before you put them in a container or the ground and make allowances for their growth pattern. If plants are spaced too closely, either in a pot or ground bed, the plants will crowd each other, restricting air flow, sun light and water supply.
Too Much Fertilizer
It is advisable to provide additional nitrogen and nutrients to tomatoes after transplanting and once tomatoes begin to produce fruit. Adding too much nitrogen, however, can result in rapid growth of lush, carbohydrate-loaded leaves that attract insect infestation, and slowed or reduced yields. Reduce or discontinue fertilizing with nitrogen after early summer to avoid growth spurts and an overly leafy plant that will wilt during summer heat.
You do not need to prune determinate tomatoes; doing so may reduce the harvest. Prune indeterminate varieties to improve airflow; this keeps air and sunshine flowing freely in and around the plants and helps in preventing disease. Pruning also increases more yield per plant as well as helps with producing larger fruit. Pinch indeterminate varieties back when about 8 inches tall. This will help to encourage lateral growth of the plant or spreading of the plant.
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Not Mulching Properly
One reason Southerners love tomato plants is that tomatoes do so well in the heat. You need to keep the soil around the plants moist and cool, however. Dry soil can lead to dry and diseased plants. Layer mulch 2 – 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.