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Tomatoes can be a tricky plant to grow, but nothing compares to the taste of a juicy red tomato that you grew yourself. Whether you’re an experienced gardener or just getting started, tomatoes are well worth including in any garden. Because tomatoes are prone to a few issues, it’s best to understand the process and pick up some tips so that you can grow the perfect tomatoes.

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Don’t crowd the seedlings

When starting your plants from seed, make sure to give each seedling plenty of room to grow. Usually, this means thinning the seeds to one strong plant per pot. Plant only two or three seeds in each pot and then snip the smaller, weaker growths to ensure only the strongest in the pot survives. Once the best seedlings grow their first true leaves, transfer them into their own larger pots.

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Tomato plants need plenty of light

When planting your tomatoes, pick the sunniest spot that you can. Tomatoes suck up sunlight almost as much as they take in water. Ideally, tomatoes should receive at least seven hours of bright, direct sunlight each day. If this isn’t possible, use some form of artificial plant lighting for 14 to 18 hours every day. Young plants should be only a few inches away from the grow lights. You’ll have to adjust the lights or the plants as they grow to maintain this distance.

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Give your tomato plants a breeze

Tomato plants require a breeze to help them build stronger stems. If you start your plants outside, this occurs naturally. However, when starting your tomato seeds inside, you need to create a breeze for them. The easiest way to do this is by turning a small fan on them for five to 10 minutes a couple of times each day. People who don’t have access to a fan can gently rub a hand back and forth across the stems for a few minutes throughout the day.

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Heat the soil before transplanting

Up-and-coming tomato growers often make the mistake of planting their tomatoes in soil that is too cold. Tomatoes love warmth, so you’ll need to make sure to warm the soil using a plastic cover for a couple of weeks before planting the tomato seeds. When planting them outside, dig a hole about a foot deep and fill it with manure or compost for some additional heat. Ideally, your planting soil should be between 60 and 65 F.

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Mulch the soil after it’s warm

Once the soil is warm, don’t forget to mulch. Not only does this help conserve moisture, but it also keeps diseases from affecting your tomatoes while keeping the soil warm. Almost any mulch will work, but some popular options are grass clippings, straw, shredded leaves, plastic, or newspaper. Interestingly, red plastic mulch seems to increase fruit yields by up to 20%. Over-mulching can cut off vital water and oxygen from the tomatoes. A mulch layer of two or three inches is ideal.

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Bury the stems when transplanting

Most plants require planting in a shallow hole, but not tomatoes. Once your tomatoes have grown a bit, you need to plant them so that most of the plant is underground, with only the topmost leaves staying visible. You can do this with a deep hole or by digging a trench and laying the tomato plant sideways. Some gardeners will remove all of the branches and leaves that will stay below the soil line to reduce the risk of diseases harming the plant.

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Pinch and prune your plants

After a tomato plant has grown a respectable amount, you’ll begin seeing small suckers developing in the joint between each stem. Suckers don’t bear fruit and are only taking energy away from the plant. Pinch these using your fingers or a pair of pruning shears. If you’re growing determinate varieties of tomato, don’t prune your plants. They only produce fruit on the ends of their branches, so pinching or clipping them means you’ll have a significantly smaller yield.

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Remove the bottom leaves

As the tomatoes grow, the leaves closest to the ground get the least amount of airflow and sun. They also are the most prone to fungal diseases that can damage the entire plant. Once your tomatoes reach about three feet tall, prune the leaves from the bottom foot. Be careful not to over prune. Tomatoes gain their flavor during photosynthesis, and removing too many leaves can lead to fewer and less sweet tomatoes.

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Tomato plants need a lot of water

Tomatoes are some of the thirstiest fruits you can grow. Water deeply and regularly, especially when the fruits are developing. Irregular watering schedules can lead to rot, cracking, and splitting, so make sure to keep to your routine. A general rule is to give your plants an inch or two of water every week, but you may need to provide more during hot and dry parts of the year. As the fruits ripen, slowly use less water to produce a better flavor. Using too little water will still damage the plant, so use your best judgment.

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Ripening tips

Ultimately, your fruits’ ripeness is beyond your control. You can help them slightly, but it’s mostly a waiting process. Pinching and pruning can help indeterminate varieties of tomatoes, but they tend to grow tall before sprouting fruits, which can take a couple of months. Picking ripe tomatoes can encourage the plant to produce more. Determinate tomatoes ripen all at once, so you don’t have to do much. However, weather conditions can prevent them from ripening or cause a condition known as blossom drop, where plants set flower blossoms that dry up and “drop” before the fruits form.

ripe tomato plant Helios4Eos / Getty Images

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