There’s nothing quite like the taste of a home grown tomato and it’s usually the first thing everyone wants to plant when they start a kitchen garden. So let’s see how you can have success every time by following a few simple steps. I will start by saying TOMATOES ARE EASY TO GROW! Now that we are all smiling let’s get started.
WHEN Autumn/Winter/Spring – Sub-Tropics. Spring/Summer – Cooler Zones
- A warm sunny spot out of the wind. Mine are north/west facing maximizing sunlight hours as I grow them from April to November because I live in the sub-tropics and it is too wet and hot the rest of the time. For cooler zone folk, plant them when the last frost is over and the days are warming up – spring and summer.
- Tomatoes do not like INTENSE HEAT, INTENSE COLD or HIGH HUMIDITY. They prefer a daytime temperature of about 24°C and consistent, but not torrential rain.
- They like a soil high in organic matter but not too rich, a pH of 5.5.-7.5 and regular watering during the growing season. Compost dug into the soil prior to planting will give the best results and regular feeding with a liquid fertilizer – I use my homemade compost tea. DON’T OVERFEED. Avoid too much nitrogen as you’ll end up with lots of leaves and no fruit.
- Larger growing varieties will get up to 2m tall and their sprawling habit will require staking or trellising otherwise the large fruit at the end of the stems will snap the plant – this is the voice of experience talking. These include Beefsteak, Oxheart, Rouge de Marmande, Black Russian, Grosse Lisse and Roma. You can allow smaller varieties to sprawl across beds without staking – like Cherry, Sweet Bite and Yellow.
- A dusting of lime and gypsum prior to planting has a few benefits – it helps to break up heavy soils and adds important calcium which encourages strong, disease-resistant growth and prevent blossom-end rot of the fruit.
TOP TIP Don’t let fruit rest on bare soil. Put a bed of straw under them otherwise they may rot or get eaten by wandering critters.
- Tomatoes are in the same family as eggplant, capsicum, chillies, peppers, potatoes and it is a very good idea not to plant all of these in the same bed at the same time. This minimizes the risk of building up pests and diseases that affect this family and stops depletion of soil nutrients that this family are hungry for.
- For the same reasons it is also a good idea not to plant tomatoes back in the same bed as the year before – move them around. WHY? Tomatoes are prone to diseases like fusarium wilt that can hang around in the soil season to season. It starts with mottled yellowing on the leaves and then spreads to the whole plant turning the leaves and stems brown. If you do notice it beginning to appear you may be able to save the plant by pruning off the affected leaves and destroying them. Good idea to give your secateurs a clean after this job to stop the spread of this disease to other plants. In a Nursery situation, they would have a tub of bleach solution to dip tools into on your way out of the greenhouse.
- Grow from seedlings and find varieties that come from your area – that are adapted to the conditions. Share seeds with friends and neighbours – that’s what I do and have fantastic success with several varieties that grow year by year with seeds that I save. I have had very little luck with seedlings bought from the hardware store. My best are Black Russian, Sweet Bite and Rouge de Marmande pictured in the photo below. – and the ubiquitous Mullum Mongrel that grows out of the compost.
- You will need about three tomato plants for a family and seedlings should be planted about 75cm apart. Harvesting starts about eight weeks after planting.
TOP TIP Put support stakes in when you plant your seedlings to avoid damaging the root system by banging them in at a later date.
KEEPING YOUR TOMATO PLANTS HEALTHY
1. Adding gypsum to the soil not only provides much needed calcium but also helps to prevent the parasitic root knot nematode which thrives in poor soils. This pest invades the roots of the plant, disfiguring them and preventing them from functioning properly. This is another reason to not plant your tomatoes in the same place two years in a row.
2. Fruit fly is a major pest of tomatoes in warm climates that’s why I like to grow them through the winter when the fruit fly is dormant. Once it starts to warm up, and the tomatoes have almost finished cropping, I hang several of my homemade fruit fly traps around to catch any hatching fruit fly before their numbers can build up. Just mix up some fruit juice with some yeast and a little water and place in the bottom of these plastic containers. The yellow tape and smell attracts the fruit fly and they drown in the fruit juice. Empty and replace regularly. NOTE: There are as many homemade recipes for these traps as there are fruit fly!!
SAVING SEED IS EASY
- Choose one healthy, ripe tomato.
- Get some kitchen paper, a knife and some willing hands.
- Cut open the fruit and scrape onto the paper.
- Leave to dry in the sun – you better cover them or the birds will come and eat them!
- When they are completely dry, store in ziplock bag until needed. Will keep for 2 years.
- To grow from seed, with this method, simply lay open the paper on top of a pot or tray of potting mix, lightly cover with soil, water and watch them grow. The paper will rot away and when the seedlings have two sets of leaves you can divide them up and plant them out. (As I keep saying to himself “there’s no point getting older unless you’re getting smarter”!)