Not all things in life need to be hard. For some, the challenge of growing your own ‘anything’ seems insurmountable; for others, it is as natural as riding a bike. The truth is that growing tomatoes is easier than it seems.
All over the world, in the most barren of soils (think Africa), tomatoes are a staple crop grown every year. And yet, somehow, with extreme temperatures and little or no water they seem to produce a crop. So, how hard can it be? Not that hard at all.
Like humans, most plants have a few simple requirements to flourish and thrive; the more you put into something the more you will get out of it. So if you fancy a crop of Olympic proportions, roll up your sleeves now and get to work, arm yourself with the best plants, soil, and fertiliser and put aside some time and, in a few months, you will be picking fresh, sweet, tasty tomatoes.
Start with the best foundation. After all, you wouldn’t build a house on a flimsy base and expect good results, would you?
For the best results tomatoes need full sun, and loads of it. It isn’t an option to plant them anywhere shady, or in an area with limited air movement. Sunlight is required to initiate the flower buds, aid in fruit formation and development, improve the plant’s ability to photosynthesise, and, of course, it helps ripen the fruit. So, no room for compromise here.
The engine room of the tomato is the root zone. Healthy roots is where the plant finds its power to grow. Not only do the roots anchor the plant into the soil, they are the main way in which the plant absorbs nutrients – a poor root system is often the main reason a crop will fail.
For a good, robust root system, prepare the soil as much as you can. A simple dig over with the fork is all that’s needed in the garden – don’t go crazy adding layers and layers of manure or compost. Yes, these are good for the soil, but they’re also laden with nitrogen, which encourages the plant to produce more foliage than flowers, e.g. more leaves than fruit. Add in a little organic matter to help the soil hold onto moisture, but don’t go overboard, it’s all about balance.
While tomatoes will grow on the smell of an oily rag in Third World countries, for the best results it’s best to feed them what they love. Healthy, well-nourished plants will reward you with a sweeter, juicy harvest. I could get all technical about NPK and trace-element nutrients, but that turns most people off, so all you really need to know about is tomato fertiliser. This does what yeast does to bread – it makes it grow. Dig in a good amount of tomato fertiliser, which is everywhere in the shops and pays dividends every time. Avoid using lime or anything with a high-nitrogen content, like lawn fertiliser or super phosphate. The trick to getting more out of your tomato fertiliser is working it into the soil before you plant, rather than sprinkling it on top of the soil where it takes longer for the roots to absorb it.
If you don’t have time to prevent the shock of transplanting your seedlings, skip this section. However, if kindness is more your style, invest in some seaweed tonic to soak your plants in prior to planting. This is great stuff. Seaweed is packed full of goodies and nutrients that prevent the plant stressing too much at planting time. Simply half-fill a bucket or put a few inches of water in the wheelbarrow, add in some Seasol or seaweed tonic and let the seedlings soak in there for a few minutes, then they are ready to plant.
Next, simply plant the tomato. If the plant is grafted, make sure the graft piece is above the soil to avoid it rotting off or being damaged. Otherwise, as long as the hole is bigger than the root ball, there is nothing to it. Water after planting. (If you have any root-drenching seaweed liquid left over, water, then in with that.)
Being such vigorous plants, tomatoes do need to be staked or supported in some way. It helps keep the fruit off the ground and also to support the branches, which become heavy as the crop develops. In windy areas it also helps prevent the plant from snapping off or getting damages. The bigger the stake the better. Bamboo canes are OK at a push – if using them, put in two or three around each plant.
If, for some reason, you can’t plant in the soil, tubs and containers are good options for tomatoes. The bigger the pot, bag or container the better, each plant needs to have a root area of at least 10 litres – the size of an average kitchen bucket, though twice that size is ideal.
When it comes to watering, less is more. Now, this will sound nuts, but a good drench twice a week is all that is needed for the majority of the growing season. Frequent watering encourages the roots to sit near the surface to get moisture, whereas you want them to wriggle deeply into the soil to anchor themselves well into the soil to where the temperatures are cool. Surface roots burn easily and do compromise the crop if the soil gets too hot too often.
If diamonds are a girl’s best friend then seaweed brews have to be that of the tomato. Once a month, a drench with a seaweed-based tonic will significantly aid in the development of your crop.
Seeds or seedlings, the choice is yours. If you have time and the inclination, seed is a cheaper way to grow a large number of tomatoes. The online catalogues like Kings Seeds and Egmont Seeds have a massive range.
Of two seed varieties that have caught my eye this season, one is ‘Winter Grape’ – or the ‘Grappoli d’Inverno’ as the Italians call it – is one you may see hanging in markets drying. The red cherry laden vines stay fresh for many months. They also dry perfectly and resemble little Roma tomatoes. The flavourful fruit are delicious and excellent for making preserves, especially pizza sauce. Plants are slow starters, but take off with vigour in early summer.
The other is ‘Siderno’, a neat compact-looking variety that suits patio and container growing. It was developed with urban home gardeners in mind. ‘Siderno’ produces masses of golfball-sized tomatoes with great taste on a knee-high plant. You won’t find this plant in the shops, so it’s a seed-only option (try Kings Seeds).
If greenfly or white fly appear on your plants, deal with them straight away; they suck the life out of plants. A good strong blast with the hose may work, but it is risky. Soapy water will knock them back a bit, too. For a sure-fire method, I use Beat A Bug, a natural bug spray that comes in a ready-to-use trigger bottle. This was off the market for a while, but it’s now back in the shops, so hunt it down. My bottle sits in the garden under my seat and I blast anything I see – slugs and snails too – this stuff works every time, so any unwanted livestock in my garden gets the heave-ho quick smart.
Top five tomato varieties
In a league of its own, this truss/vine tomato has so much flavour. Renowned for its ability to fruit even under the most trying of conditions, if you are only going to plant a few plants, this is the one to try. All the fruit ripen at once on the truss, whereas most tomatoes ripen one at a time in a bunch. You will find this plants at Mitre 10.
2. ‘Tasty Tom’
For something twice the size of ‘Campari’, ‘Tasty Tom’ is a goodie. It is a reliable producer of firm, sweet tomatoes. It does get quite large so needs at least one big stake or a couple of smaller ones.
3. ‘Money Maker’
This oldie remains a goodie, producing red midsized tomatoes. Every year I plant four punnets (24 plants), and they are always ready for picking when I want to make my relish in February. The flavour is awesome and it is so reliable – it copes with a fair bit of neglect, too.
4. ‘Brandywine Pink’
This heirloom variety has the most outstanding flavour. This is not one you would plant for yield as it is not a heavy cropper, but it simply has the best flavour and wins many blindfolded tomatotasting competitions.
5. ‘Yellow Pear’
This small old-fashioned cocktail-sized tomato has the sweetest flavour. It tends to mature later in the season. It’s a ripper and always makes salads and salsas look so vibrant.