I am never without tomatoes in my vegetable garden. Even when living in apartments and flats, I always had room for a plant or two. Sometimes they were in large kitchen buckets or terracotta pots; one year I planted them in an old 44-gallon drum Dad had brought in from the farm.
I come from a long line of tomato lovers and growers. My nana, Doreen Rachel Annie Vogan, religiously grew three rows each season on her north-facing sloping garden at the head of Akaroa Harbour. She liked the reliability and durability of ‘money maker’ and ‘Potentate’, but also the fleshiness and flavour of beefsteak. She never bothered with the tiny cocktail types; “what a waste of time these are,” she thought. Nowadays, the trend and demand for mouthfuls of sweet cocktail tomatoes is quite the opposite of nana’s taste. Each season new ones appear, generally ranging in colour or shape.
When and where to grow
If you know the ins and outs of tomato growing you will know that they need full sun to thrive and to stimulate flower production and fruit formation. Shade isn’t an option; all-day sun is mandatory. And don’t bother planting them until the temperatures are at least 15-20°C during the day. Not just any old dirt will do either; the soil needs to be fertile, and have the ability to hold onto moisture. When growing in the ground, enhance the soil by adding in generous amounts of well-rotted animal manure or sheep pellets. Compost is ideal, too. Fork it all in and then blend in tomato fertiliser prior to planting. Don’t get too heavy-handed with nitrogen-laden items though as too much nitrogen encourages leaf growth and less flower production. That’s why the potash-laden tomato fertilisers are necessary.
If you wish to take all the guesswork out of growing tomatoes, go down the easy route and plant straight in tomato mix. These ready-made mixes have all the goodies pre-blended into them. Either add it to the garden or fill your pots and containers with it and plant. It does need to be replenished each season, as the crops use the nutrients throughout the growing season.
TLC – tomato loving care
Keep them cosy: In areas where late frosts touch the ground into November, tomatoes should be kept indoors or tucked up with a hot-water bottle in the glasshouse overnight. Once the frosts have packed up, get busy with planting. Do protect young seedlings from strong winds as well.
Staking: Unless you are planting super-compact or tumbling dwarf hybrids, all tomatoes need a supportive stake, fence or set of strings to support the main stem. As the fruit develops, the weight of each truss of fruit increases, putting pressure on the main stem, sometimes causing it to snap if left unsupported. Staking also helps keep the fruit off the ground.
Watering: A regular watering regime is one of the essentials. Avoid watering a little every day, rather aim to water deeply every few days to encourage the roots to anchor themselves further into the soil. In pots and containers, one litre of water twice a week is normally enough, but if the foliage is drooping they need more water.
Feeding: Blend tomato fertiliser into the soil prior to planting, it does take a little time to settle into the soil. Once a month, drench young plants with Seasol to speed up the root and flower development. A healthy, vigorous root system provides the perfect platform for robust plants.
Laterals: Pinch them out as soon as they appear. If left on the plant they divert energy into growth that could be used to produce more fruit.
Crop failure can sometimes be due to lack of pollination. With tomatoes, this is often the case when they are grown indoors where bees and other pollinating insects are not as prevalent. For indoor plants, open doors regularly to allow for air movements. Plant plenty of flowers and pollinating plants in the area.
Essentially, these are two plants grown as one. The variety (scion) is grafted onto a super vigorous and robust root stock, the combination of which produces a plant that has the ability to produce a larger crop of tomatoes. Grafted plants can produce double that of a normal variety. Because of the strong rootstock, the grafted tomatoes tend to have greater disease resistance and therefore minimal spraying is required. They are a little more expensive to buy, but, if you only have room for a handful of plants why not capitalise on getting twice the harvest in half the space? Note that all grafted tomatoes need secure staking; these plants are vigorous and strong, but do need support.
While it is wonderful that the demand for good old-fashioned tomatoes has forced growers to produce seedlings of these tasty old-time favourites, it is useful to understand why the industry has been reluctant to grow heirloom varieties. They taste great and come in a range of shapes, colours and sizes, but most are not renowned for their fruiting capacity or durability to seasonal temperature and weather fluctuations, therefore the harvest is usually less. New hybrids are bred to fruit more reliably at home and cope in a wider range of climate.
The best of cherry and berry cocktail tomatoes
This season sees a wider range of cocktail tomatoes hit the shelves. Black, yellow and orange cherry tomatoes will all be available along with the traditional red ‘Sweet 100’ varieties and types.
The sweetest of them all is ‘Tomaccio’ – the raisin tomato. Allow a bit of room for this one as it can reach 1.5-2m if left to its own devices. ‘Red Pear’ and ‘Yellow Pear’ are two smaller miniature varieties to seek out. Being bite-sized and pear-shaped, the fruit looks amazing in salads and the yellow one is especially sweet.
Short and stout
Compact knee-high varieties of tomatoes appeal to those who have smaller gardens and limited space. ‘Patio’ is a 60cm dwarf hybrid, which produces plenty of golf-ball sized fruit on a compact plant. ‘Megabite’ is even more compact, only growing to 40cm, it produces surprisingly large fruit for such a small plant, staking does help support this one as it has so many fruit. ‘Totem’ is another good one – it looks like its on steroids with heavily veined, pumped-up dark-green leaves and thumbnail to golf-ball-sized fruit.
Large, meaty, fist-sized tomatoes are not only impressive in size, but are also very flavoursome. ‘Big Beef’ is a goodie that is highly disease resistant. ‘Beefsteak’ is probably the most well-known and the name just speaks for itself. ‘Brandywine Pink’ takes a bit of beating for its flavour, and even though it is slow to ripen and not that prolific it’s well worth planting. ‘Oxheart’ is popular because of its size, meatiness, and low acidity.
If you are after some heavy croppers for sauce, relish and soup look to reliable favourites, such as ‘money maker’, ‘Tasty Tom’, ‘Dr Walter’, ‘Roma’ and ‘Taupo’.
Please be aware tomato varieties will vary by store. Please speak to our Garden expert’s in-store for more information.