It’s a dead cert that anyone growing their own food will also be growing tomatoes.
Tomatoes are one of the most popular growing fruits in the world. They are high in vitamin c, Vitamin A, potassium, and iron.
They are also packed full of fun! Anyone who grows them, especially the children will really get a thrill out of watching their crop grow and turn into fabulous fruits, and with the right varieties, you will enjoy tastes and textures far superior to those found in the supermarkets.
They are available in hundreds of different shapes, sizes, and varieties, from tiny grape-sized producing bushes, to tall vining types that produce 5lb whoppers.
Cherry tomatoes are a particular favorite of mine, and they produce very well in high heat where the more traditional tomatoes may struggle a bit, giving more versatility. Perfect for salads and snacking.
Other definitions include whether a plant is determinate, or indeterminate. Determinate plants produce all their fruit at once and will be more bush-like. They are very predictable and will produce a pre-prescribed size and shape of the plant. Determinate plants, however, are much more fun! They will produce plants of ‘indeterminate’ shapes and sizes, and they will do it all season long. They are generally vining plants.
Tomatoes are absolutely ideal candidates for container gardening. If you want a flourishing, high yielding crop, then getting the soil right is the key, and containers will allow you total and full control over the soil and growing conditions. Almost any container will do, but as a rule, the larger the pot, the better and healthier your tomato plants will be, and the bigger the yields you will get.
Growing Tomatoes From Seed
You can go out and buy expensive young tomato plants from a garden center or nursery, but there really is no need. Starting your tomato plants is very simple and straight forward. One easy method is to take a standard 5-inch diameter pot; three-quarters fill it with a good quality potting compost, sprinkle on your tomato seeds and then cover the seeds with 1/4 inch of soil. Another method is to set the seeds individually or as pairs into 1/4 inch deep holes in potting compost, laid out in starter seed trays. In either case, the should not be planted deeper than about 1/4 inch, or the tiny seedlings may not have enough strength to reach the surface. Be careful when you water them for the first time. If you water with a heavy splashing arrangement, you will dislodge the little seeds that will act just like corks and float up to the surface, or even get washed away. So be very gentle.
Germination on a warm windowsill will usually take no longer than about 10 – 14 days. Keep the soil moist at all times, but not wet. If using the seed trays method, if more than one seedling germinates in each cell, wait until they have reached an inch or two in height and snip away the weakest one. If using the sprinkle method, wait until the seedlings are large enough to handle, and then transplant individually into small-medium sized peat pots. Be careful not to handle the stems to prevent damage to the vascular system of the plant.
At this stage keep the plants protected i.e. indoors unless the last frost has already passed – If they fall below 32 degrees, they will die.
OK, this is the important bit. Before you transfer your young growing tomatoes into their permanent homes, it’s important to make sure they are going into good soil conditions. You can grow them in regular compost and get a reasonable result, but if you want exceptionally good results, then a few moments spent here will pay off in dividends later on.
There are a couple of things you can do to the soil to prepare it specifically for growing tomatoes and these things will make a big difference. Firstly, adding pearlite, or vermiculite, and organic material such as well-rotted manure and/or peat moss to the soil will help enormously. It needs to have good drainage, but be able to stay moist. Mel’s mix springs to mind here (from the Square Foot Gardening method), but good drainage is essential to a healthy tomato plant.
The second thing you should do to get your soil just right is to add calcium. This is instrumental in preventing a condition called ‘blossom end rot’ which is particularly common in the larger tomato plant varieties such as beefsteak and Brandywine.
Leaf-curl is also a condition associated with insufficient calcium.
You can use standard gardening lime, but a few handfuls of crushed oyster shell, which is loaded with calcium, mixed deeply into the soil works even better, and makes an ideal tomato growing environment! This is a secret used by many self-proclaimed tomato gardening ‘connoisseurs’.
Once your growing tomatoes have turned into healthy young tomato plants – say at 9 – 11 inches tall, then it’s time to transplant them to their permanent homes. If they are to be placed in large generous sized pots, then cleanly cut off any branches (or suckers) below the top 4-5 inches of the plant. Dig a deep hole in the prepared soil and place the plant in deeply, so that the pruned stem becomes buried in the soil. The areas where you have just cut off the branches will go on to produce more roots, making the plant much stronger and robust as well as highly productive. Don’t pack your new plants in too hard (avoid compacting the soil.)
Most of the larger tomato plant varieties can become top-heavy and will likely need support – especially the high-yielding varieties. The combined weight of all the fruits on a single plant can easily bend and snap a healthy stem, killing the plant completely. Tomato cages or spirals are the best options for your growing tomatoes. Recent research has discovered that physically tying a tomato plant to a straight stake, such as a bamboo cane can hinder its progress and restrict its production of fruit. Always place your stake in straight away, as soon as the young plants have been transplanted. Do not wait until the plant has grown bigger because you could cause major damage to the root system. Push your support all the way into the pot so it reaches the bottom to give it the best chance of supporting the weight later on.
Location, Growing & Feeding
Tomatoes need at least 6 hours of sunshine a day to flourish so make sure you have a good location for them. Once the plants have been transplanted allowed to settle in for a week or so, and then feed with a good quality fertilizer. If you want to be more specific, then go for a fertilizer with a 15:15:15 ratio (Equal parts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and potassium) this will give the young plants a good start.
Many new gardeners make the mistake of over-feeding which results in lots of lush growth, but cooler soil (from the shade of the growth) and just a few slow-to-ripen tomatoes.
Tomatoes do need feeding but only every 5-6 weeks. Again if you want more specifics, use a fertilizer with Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and potassium at ratios of 5:10:15 respectively. The lower nitrogen during growing is good – if it’s high, it may cause the plant to prevent the intake of calcium and this will become counterproductive.
Another common mistake that gardeners make with their tomatoes is over-watering. Watering them well is fine while the foliage is growing, but once the tomato plants start to set fruit, keep a close eye on their moisture levels and do not over-water, although do not let them fully dry out either!
Quite often the top layer of soil will be dry and will give the appearance that the plants need watering – become aware of this potential deception! Make a point of pushing your fingers into the soil at least a few inches and see whether there is moisture below the dry surface. If there is, leave them alone and do not water further. If the soil is dry throughout, then water them.
Always water the plants at ground level – at the base. Never water the actual foliage if at all possible to help avoid the dreaded and devastating ‘blight’. Water your tomato plants early in the morning. It will give them a fighting chance to remain moist throughout the day and allow the soil to warm up before the evening.
Tomatoes are generally considered self-pollinating, as in the male and female parts are both contained within the same flower. The bees or the wind still play an important part in the pollination process as the pollen still has to travel from one part of the flower to the other. Your growing tomatoes may need a helping hand if there are no bees or insects or breeze to take care of the pollination process or if it’s particularly wet or cold.
Even in an ideal growing environment, the following method is still worth doing anyway because you are likely to get a higher yield.
A great way to ensure good pollination of your growing tomatoes is to grow some great bee-attracting plants next to them, such as lavender or marigolds (which are also good companion plants).
All it takes is the flutter of a bees wings or a breeze to dislodge the pollen from the male part of the flower to hopefully fall upon the female part at the central tip of the flower. The blossom is ready to be fertilized when the petals all fold back and the central blossom hangs down. A good way to do this manually is to gently flick the ripe flower with your fingers, alternatively, just shake the flower stem gently to loosen the pollen and allow it to fall onto the blossom. Some gardeners use an electric toothbrush. The vibrations are said to be perfect to ensure the flowers pollinate well. The best time of day to do this is around noon. Not before 10 am and not after 4 pm. Gardeners who use this method generally claim they get higher yields of tomatoes.
Pruning your Growing Tomatoes
Pruning can be employed if the foliage gets a little too much, but bear in mind that the leaves also provide shade to the ripening tomatoes and allow them to ripen without getting sunburned.
Late on in the season, you can cut away excess foliage to enable the growing energy of the plant to be transferred into the remaining fruits. If you have mildew or fungus, or leaf miners appearing on any of the leaves, you can cut away the affected leaves and stems.
Healthy cuttings can also be rooted easily, just dip them in a little rooting powder and treat them like a seedling.
When pruning, always use clean cutters (to prevent the spread of disease) and cut cleanly against the main part of the stem. You can also bend up the branch so it snaps cleanly at the knuckle and doesn’t bleed.
As a general rule in growing tomatoes, keep pruning to a minimum. Ultimately, the leaves make food that goes into making your tomatoes. Fewer leaves = less impressive fruits.
A fairly straight forward and self-explanatory paragraph. Your growing tomatoes will usually start to become ready for picking about 60 – 70 days after the seeds are planted.
It’s usually best to wait for at least a few days after they have turned red – this will allow them to get a little bit plumper and to sweeten off. Tomatoes that are picked as soon as they turn red tend to be harder and less sweet. To remove them from the vine, it’s best to cut/snip them off leaving an inch or two of the vine attached to the tomato. They seem to last a bit longer if they still have some of the vine attached to them.
Growing Tomatoes Upside-down?
We will be growing tomatoes upside-down for the first time this year. There have been recent reports from many different gardeners saying what great success they have had using this particular tomato gardening method. The whole tomato plant is grown upside down in a suspended bucket, poking out from a small hole cut in the base of that bucket. I have now experimented and written an article and made a video on this very subject and you can see them all here.
There is a superb book available called How To Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes written by a world-renowned who advises the professional growers. Click here to see this excellent and comprehensive book
What’s Your Experience With Tomatoes?
So that’s our little article on growing tomatoes, we hope you found it useful.
I am always keen to hear from others about their own experiences, tips, advice or stories on the subject of growing tomatoes. So if you have something you feel will benefit, amuse or entertain others, then please feel free to use the “Have Your Say” form below. Doesn’t matter how trivial you think it is, I’m sure somebody will enjoy reading it, and it could help others to grow better tomatoes!