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By Maria Liberati - Who doesn’t love the sweet richness of a freshly picked tomato? Whether they’re small red cherries, yellow pear tomatoes or the “Big Beef” variety, nothing compares to the way a garden-grown tomato melts in your mouth. Avoid the disappointment of drooping leaves, bug infestations and cracked fruit by following these tips for a delightful crop.

There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes. Many modern hybrids have been developed to be resistant to certain diseases that can plague your plants. Choose cultivars that will have a better chance of thriving in your area.

When planning your garden, do not plant tomatoes where potatoes, peppers or eggplants have grown in the past 3 or 4 years. These species share a common blight that can live in the soil for several years and you will increase the chances for healthy tomato plants by keeping them far away from each other.

Mulch your tomato plants. Place straw, leaves, grass clippings or a store-bought organic-based mulch around the tomato plants on top of the soil. Mulch is a great way to keep the earth from drying out quickly, plus it keeps the weeds down.

Stake your tomato plants. Sticks or tomato cages work well. Use a soft piece of material to gently tie your plants to the stakes. Gardening centers sell ties of all sorts, though if recycling is your aim, sections of old nylons work well.

Take advantage of companion planting. Plant a few garlic cloves, basil seeds or borage close to your tomato plants. These are some of tomato’s best friends! They repel some of the most damaging insects that feast upon your precious plants.

Trimming is always a good thing. This really isn’t as tricky as it sounds. When tomato plants are growing, little “suckers” sprout up out of the crevices between the main stem and the leaf axils. With a sharp pair of scissors or simply your thumb and finger, just pinch these little leaves off, allowing the plant to focus its energy on the existing leaves and flowers (soon-to-be fruit).

Water your tomatoes directly at the base of your plants. When the leaves are wet, they are more susceptible to disease.

Tomatoes thrive in an averagely warm climate. Not too hot; not too cold. Not too wet; not too dry. They benefit from a deep watering about once a week more than light daily doses. However, take your type of soil into account: if you have sandy soil and no mulch, you will have to water more often than a clay-based soil with mulch. Evenly watering your tomatoes will help to avoid cracked fruit at harvest time.

Feed your little guys. Spread some rich compost around the base of your flowering plants. The nutrients will give an extra boost to your healthy tomatoes.

Don’t allow your tomatoes to get too cold or too hot. If you live in a very hot climate, try planting something like peas or cucumbers directly south of your tomatoes-something that climbs-to offer them a bit of extra shade. Conversely, if a cold front blows into your area and thermometer starts dipping down below 50˚F (10˚C), cover them up with sheets, as the fruit won’t set properly if they get too cold.

Whether you are planting a garden-full or you have a pot or two on your deck, add a bit of extra sweetness to your tomato plants and you will reap the benefits at harvest time, for they will give you plenty of sweetness in return.

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Photo by Silvia Mannarelli