Growing tomatoes is a bit like fishing - everyone has a story! Talking to experienced gardeners is a great way to learn new tricks, but as all those stories indicate, there are lots of pathways to the perfect tomato.
However you go about it, no tomato is as satisfying as one from your own garden. And despite all that talk, tomatoes are very easy to grow.
The choice of tomato varieties can be overwhelming. In recent years gardeners have been rediscovering what we call the 'heirloom' varieties, which have been around for at least fifty years, sometimes hundreds, and passed down through generations. Some of them, such as Money Maker have never gone out of favour.
If you are bored with plain red tomatoes, look to the heirlooms for a wonderful assortment of colours and interesting shapes. Some heirloom varieties have a high proportion of foliage to fruit but because the sugars and acids that make up the flavour are made in the leaves, the payback is in the taste. In general, heirloom varieties have good disease resistance, although each performs differently depending on where they are grown and seasonal weather conditions.
Trialing an assortment of different varieties is the best way to work out which are best for you and your garden.Plus there are also many excellent modern tomato varieties.
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Tomatoes need warm frost-free weather. Unless you have a glasshouse it's risky to plant before the last expected frost, but make the most of the growing season by getting them in well before Christmas. Choose a position sheltered from cold winds. Some air movement is important however, because still humid air invites disease.
Tomatoes need a well-drained soil and a non-stop supply of water and nutrients. Prepare the soil by digging in lots of compost and some balanced general fertiliser. High potassium tomato fertilisers aren't recommended until flowering starts, as high potassium levels may actually hinder the early green growth by blocking nitrogen.
If you're planting where tomatoes grew last year, dig out the soil and replace it with fresh compost and soil from elsewhere in the garden. Don't plant tomatoes in soil that carried a crop of potatoes, peppers or eggplants the previous year - they're all in the same family and subject to the same diseases.
In warm climates start your tomatoes from seed in September, but the easiest way is to buy a punnet of seedlings or individually potted plants from the garden centres in October. Place stakes at planting time to avoid damaging the roots later. Water new plants an hour or so before planting. Water again after planting and finish off with organic mulch to conserve moisture.
Tomatoes from seed
Growing tomatoes from seed means a greater choice of varieties, but one packet produces a lot of plants. Swap varieties with friends to get a better range.
Plant seedlings deep so the seed leaves are buried. The stem in the soil will send out roots to anchor the plant and seek more food and water.
Tomatoes love to be fed. The easiest way to be sure of the best balance of nutrients, is to use a fertiliser especially made for tomatoes. These fertilisers have optimum potassium levels to promote fruiting. When the small green fruit make their appearance, start fortnightly feeding with liquid fertiliser.
Home made brews from comfrey leaves (high in potassium) and seaweed are very effective, but care is needed not too make these too concentrated. Sheep pellets and fish manures also give good results. Seaweed makes excellent mulch.
Thoroughly soak the ground at watering time. Training roots to grow deep into the soil via deep but less frequent watering, combined with mulching to keep moisture in, means you'll need to water less often. To avoid disease, aim for the roots, not the foliage.
Tall growing varieties that produce fruit continuously over many weeks (called indeterminate) are best trained on stakes or wires to encourage manageable upright growth. Remove the little side shoots (called laterals) that appear between each leaf and the main stem. Do this every few days as the plant grows, lightly tying the new top growth to the stake with flexible ties. Guard against disease entry by removing laterals only on a dry sunny day.
When the plant has reached the desired height, or has a dozen or so good trusses of fruit, remove the growing tip at the top of the plant. This diverts energy back into the developing fruit. Although the plant needs its foliage to make energy for growing fruit, removing lower leaves helps promote air circulation.
Dwarf tomato varieties yield one main crop all at once (called determinate). They'll produce more fruit without pruning, but foliage that becomes diseased or overcrowded should be removed. Protect the fruit from contact with the soil by mulching with straw. Alternatively, grow them in containers.
Tomatoes are ideally ripened on the vine. However, harvesting fruit before it is fully coloured helps keep the fruit firmer for longer and relieves the plant of it's load, allowing it to keep on the job of producing more crops. Pick whole trusses, leaving stems intact and place them indoors, away from direct sunlight but not in the fridge, to allow full development of the sugars.
Too many tomatoes? If you grow more tomatoes than your family, friends and neighbours can eat fresh, store all that goodness and flavour for winter. Tomatoes can be dried, bottled or frozen. Make tomato relish to give away, and delicious pasta sauces for the freezer.
Did you know? Cooked tomatoes (in paste, soups, and sauces) and sun-dried tomatoes are even better for us than fresh tomatoes because they're a more concentrated source of the cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene is what makes tomatoes red.
Where soil space is limited, tomatoes are easily grown in containers. One of the most important things you can do to ensure tomato success is to use a big enough container - the bigger the better.
Plastic grow bags are effective and practical. Dwarf and cherry tomatoes, which don't require staking, are well suited for containers or large hanging baskets. Taller varieties can be grown in large pots with support from a climbing frame or stake.
Pay special attention to feeding and watering when growing tomatoes in containers.
Harvest container tomatoes frequently to relieve the branches of weight and encourage the plants to continue blooming and set more fruit.
In warm humid conditions tomatoes attract a range of diseases, but you can grow them without chemicals, or at least minimise spraying by paying attention to soil, water and feeding for strong vigorous growth and taking some preventative measures:
Combine first 7 ingredients in a bowl then season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
A truss of ripening tomatoes, planted with companion sweet basil.