9 tomato-growing tricks to know before you plant
For salads, sauces, sandwiches and soups, homegrown tomatoes can’t be beaten. These tomato-growing tips will help you grow a bumper crop this summer.
Words Jane Wrigglesworth
Prepare the soil
Soil is the garden’s workhorse, so get this right and be on the way to the best crop of tomatoes ever. Incorporate compost and a general fertiliser a few weeks before planting, or dig in sheep pellets or fish meal. A soil rich in humus provides nutrients and attracts beneficial microbes. Humus is that dark, organic material that forms when plant and animal matter breaks down. It promotes healthy plants, and healthy plants mean fewer pests and diseases.
Don’t plant out too early
Tomato seedlings are traditionally planted out into the garden on or around Labour Day, or when all risk of frost has passed. Seeds sown during September should be ready for planting out by late October. Sow in pots or trays filled with seed-raising mix and keep in a warm, sheltered spot out of direct sunlight until ready to plant out.
Plant in full sun
When seedlings reach 10cm high, plant outdoors in full sun in well-drained soil. Space 30-40cm apart to allow for air movement; too close and plants will be susceptible to disease.
Plant the seedlings deeply. Pinch off the bottom set of leaves and bury the roots and stem into prepared garden soil up to the next set of leaves. Plants will form new roots along the buried stems, enabling them to absorb more water and nutrients from the soil and be off to the best start.
Stake at planting time
There are two types of tomatoes; determinate and indeterminate. Indeterminate tomatoes are vining plants that continue to grow and produce throughout the season. Determinate tomatoes reach a certain height then set all their fruit at once. Their fruit also ripens within a short period of approximately two weeks.
Indeterminate varieties should be staked at planting to avoid damaging roots if stakes are inserted later. Determinate varieties typically do not need staking.
For the fastest crop, plant determinate tomatoes as they mature much sooner than indeterminate varieties. ‘Roma’ and ‘Scoresby Dwarf’ are two excellent determinate tomato varieties.
Feed plants every two or three weeks with a balanced, water-soluble plant food. Once the tomato plants start to flower, switch to a specialist tomato fertiliser. These are high in potassium, which encourages the production of flowers and fruit. Lay off the high-nitrogen fertiliser at this stage or plants will produce leaves at the expense of fruit.
Maintain a regular and consistent watering regime. If soil moisture levels fluctuate fruit can split or suffer from blossom end rot. It might be worth setting up a basic irrigation system if hand watering is inconvenient.
Remove side shoots
As plants grow, pinch off the laterals (side stems), leaving just a few branches growing from the main stem. This encourages plants to put their energy into fruit development rather than leaf development. It’s a good idea to remove the lower leaves as plants grow to prevent diseases coming from the soil onto leaves. Pop these side shoots into the soil and they will grow as new plants.
Plant prolific producers
For maximum yields, pick tomatoes that are guaranteed to produce. Try ‘Sweet 100’, ‘Sweet Gold’, ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and ‘Gold Nugget’ – all prolific, very sweet, cherry tomatoes. Prolific heirlooms include ‘Oxheart’, ‘Watermouth’, ‘Burbank’ and ‘Tangella’. The latter also has extremely high levels of the health-giving tetra-cis-lycopene. For a modern hybrid, try the medium-sized ‘Soprano F1’ or the meaty ‘Andiamo F1’.