Yes, it’s that time of year again, tomato time. Each year when I come to share my tips and tricks on my favourite crop I come across things I didn’t know. Like, did you know that the first tomatoes in Europe were yellow varieties? Over time breeders cross-pollinated tomatoes to breed red cultivars.
Anyway, now that most of the frosts have packed up, and the days and nights are considerably warmer, tomatoes can be planted. If you live in a pocket where the odd late frost can appear this month, hold off planting yours for a few weeks – unless they are going into pots or tubs, then you can tuck them somewhere warm if need be.
It’s a smidge late to put seeds in now, as they will take six to eight weeks to germinate and grow into a sizeable, healthy seedling. However, garden centres are jam-packed with plants in all shapes and sizes. Small seedlings are in punnets, priced up between $2.50 and $4 each, or there are plenty as individual plants, varying in price depending on size and whether or not they have been grafted. A grafted tomato has a phenomenal growth rate and generally produces a larger plant, therefore more tomatoes. You don’t need to plant as many grafted tomatoes because they produce more fruit.
Sun, sun & more sun If you cannot find a spot in full sun away from blustery winds, you can forget about growing a decent crop of tomatoes. All-day sun will produce the best crop; a few hours in the shade is ok, but they need at least half a day in full sun.
When planting in the ground, blend in compost or tomato mix first. This enables the soil to hold on to more moisture. At this time I blend in my tomato fertiliser, too, then water the soil well. If you can, do this a week before you put the plants in the ground.
Tomatoes are greedy beggars; they just love food, particularly tomato food which is blended to promote healthy roots, strong flower formation and fruit development. This specialty fertiliser is like a multi-vitamin for tomatoes and does not contain as much nitrogen as general fertilisers do. Too much nitrogen in the soil promotes more leaves as opposed to flowers, which is not what we want in tomatoes or other fruit crops such as chillies, eggplants or zucchini. A small bag of tomato food will last you a season or two.
Tubs, troughs & planters
Tomatoes are a good option for growing in pots and containers. Big is best when it comes to the size of container, as they suck up water and nutrients at rate of knots. Therefore, the plant needs to be able to develop a large root system to supports its growth habit. The potting mix needs to be top notch, too, with plenty of fertiliser and an ability to hold onto ample amounts of water. Suppliers make it easy and make specific tomato mixes, which you’ll find easily in the shops. If you wanted to make your own, blend equal parts of compost, well-rotted manure and grit for the base, then work in tomato fertiliser prior to planting. The risk with homemade mixes are weeds and the potential that they can ‘heat up’ if the compost or manure isn’t fully mature.
Most tomatoes require staking to support the stem, which will carry the weight of the crop as it develops. Staking also helps keep the fruit off the ground. New dwarf and ground-covering varieties don’t need this extra support, however. Choose a big fat stake or use a couple of bamboo canes.
How to grow tomatoes in a straw bale
This season, as I have a limited amount of soil space in which to grow tomatoes, I have decided to grow a few in pea-straw bales. A couple of gardening friends do it and they suggested I try it. So far so good.
- Select your sunny tomoto-growing spot, bearing in mind that once the bales become wet they are not that easy to move.
- Hydrate the bale of straw. This takes about a week of watering it once a day.
- Sit the bale on its side and remove about 10 handfuls of straw from the centre of the bale to make a hole, leaving the sides intact. Combine tomato mix and tomato fertiliser and put this into the hole you have created.
- Water and leave overnight to dry out.
- The following morning, plant your tomato – and, if you like, some companions such as parsley and calendula.
Mine has been growing for a month now, tucked up next to the barn in which I live. It looks healthy and is forming flowers and setting fruit, so fingers crossed it works. I am going to try growing pumpkins using this method, too!
When things go wrong you can normally attribute it with a few main things: Stress, through a lack of hydration, is the cause of most of the problems with tomatoes. Once plants wilt and begin to collapse numerous pests and diseases can and will attack a weak plant. Hence water is a lifeline for tomatoes. The trick is to water them deeply once or twice a week, rather than a little every day, especially when planted in the ground. In pots and containers, they will dry out quicker, but in the ground, you want to encourage the roots to bury themselves deeply into the cooler earth where water is more available. Shallow or light watering only encourages the feeder roots to stay near the surface where they often get burnt when the soil heats up in the sun. Poor plant nutrient is the other main cause of problems. If you expect your tomatoes to be athletes in the garden, and perform at their best, you need to feed them on a regular basis, especially when they are being grown in tubs and containers. One side-dressing of tomato food sprinkled around the drip line of the plant is enough per season. Team that up with a seaweed liquid tonic once a month and your crop will have plenty of fuel in the tank.
Your local Mitre 10 store has a range of tomato products. A couple of favourites are:
- ‘Heartbreaker’ – Bright red and very sweet, the heart-shaped fruit form on long trusses, on a compact plant that only gets to 1m in height. A good choice for smaller gardens and tubs. Available at all Mitre 10’s nationwide.
- ‘Ponchi tomato’ – A small plant that produces an abundance of cherry sized sweet juicy cocktail tomatoes. A good choice for pots.