Homegrown tomatoes taste fantastic and are easy to grow in pots or a spare patch of the garden bed. Follow these tips for growing sweet, juicy tomatoes you can truly call your own.
Tips for Growing Tomatoes
Sure, you can buy some beautifully grown tomatoes in the market these days, but nothing compares to stepping outside to pick a few of your own hand raised ruby globes for a salad, or some firm, egg-shaped Romas for a tasty sauce.
Selecting Tomato Seedlings
For most of us outside the tropics, planting tomatoes is a joyous ritual heralding the coming of Summer. In most climates, tomato seedlings can be planted about four weeks before the end of Spring, so the raising of plants from seed begins even earlier.
When buying tomato seedlings, always choose short, stocky seedlings over tall thin plants that may be weak from not enough light. Ask the nursery staff which varieties they recommend for the amount of space you have. For instance, the ‘bush’ or ‘determinate’ San Marzanos are wonderful for patio pots, but you should select a taller ‘climbing’ or ‘indeterminate’ variety for something to look beautiful wandering along a trellis. Beefsteak varieties are great for sandwiches, and cherry tomatoes are perfect for children.
Planting Tomato Seedlings
In most urban gardens, tomatoes can be grown either in a large pot or in an existing garden bed. The most important thing to consider is sunlight. Tomato plants need at least 4 hours of direct sunlight a day, with 8 hours being ideal. Do be careful not to let pots heat up too much in the direct sun. Placing your potted plant inside another larger pot will provide a barrier and prevent overheating.
In the garden bed, plant seedlings about half a metre apart to give them enough light and air circulation when they are fully grown. In pots, use a quality potting mix that will allow adequate drainage. Mix in a complete fertiliser at the rate suggested on the pack. Aged manure and blood and bone are both terrific slow release food for tomatoes.
Most tomato plants, especially taller varieties, will require some form of staking for support, and this should also be in place before you plant your seedling to avoid damaging the roots later on. Tall wooden stakes can be easily knocked in, or wire mesh, string, or trellis can also be used to tie the plants to as they grow.
Once your pot or bed is prepared, plant seedlings an inch or so deeper than the top of their root system to allow new roots to form on the stem and strengthen the plant. Water in gently to create good soil contact with the roots and continue to water gently and frequently for a few days until the root system is reestablished.
Finally, placing a layer of mulch over the soil will help to prevent moisture loss and control weeds. A few centimeters of pea straw or sugar cane mulch works well, as does black horticultural plastic, which has the added advantage of warming the soil in cooler areas.
Caring for Tomato Plants
Tomato plants need consistent watering to produce healthy fruits; however, you should use only water when the soil begins to feel dry to encourage the roots to grow deeply. Pots need to be checked more regularly and often need watering daily in hot weather. Avoid overhead watering, which can spread fungal disease. Watering at the base of the plant early in the morning is best.
Tomato plants are heavy feeders. Liquid fertilizers such as fish emulsion are easy to apply every two weeks to keep the plants growing vigorously.
Avoid over-pruning your tomato plants as the fruits need leaves to protect them from sun-scald. You can decrease the bushiness of your plant by pinching out the new shoots or ‘laterals’ that emerge diagonally where the horizontal branches meet the stem.
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Tomato Plant Diseases and Pests
A few yellowing lower leaves as the plant gets older is normal, but if the entire plant withers or becomes covered in blotches or spots, it is most likely a fungal or bacterial disease. You could pull off a leaf and take it to a nursery for advice if you need it.
Inspect your plants, especially on the underside of the leaves, for any troublesome pests such as tomato caterpillar or whitefly.
In most climates, tomatoes will be ready to harvest from Summer through to Autumn. Picking fruit slightly on the green side and allowing them to finish ripening indoors gives the best flavor. Check your tomatoes every day or so and pick them while they are still firm and unspoiled.
Follow these basic tips for growing tomatoes, and you will have delicious tomatoes to be proud of throughout the warmer months.