Nothing beats the flavour of a freshly picked, home-grown tomato. With every size, shape and colour now available, there’s a tomato for everyone – even balcony gardeners.
Growing Tomato Plants
Tomato see are easy to produce, provided they come from a traditional variety and not from a hybrid. Put the pulp of a ripe tomato into a bowl and add a little water. Soon a whitish film will form on the surface of the liquid.
After 36 hours, add more water and stir – this process separates the seeds from the pulp, and the seeds will sink to the bottom. Strain the liquid through a sieve, rinse the seeds under the cold tap and then leave to dry on a piece of paper towel.
Gemination of tomato seeds requires warmth. Usually the natural warmth of spring is enough, but in cooler climates, gardeners can use a few tricks to get them growing ahead of spring. Sow seeds into small pots or cell trays in late winter in a warm place, such as in a heated propagator, a foam box or even on top of your hot water system.
Seedlings can be planted out once they have produced three or four leaves and all threat of frost is gone. If the spring weather is unpredictable in your area, transplant them into individual pots and keep in a warm, sheltered spot for a few more weeks.
Staking plants is essential as they have a naturally trailing or climbing habit. Training them upwards means they take up less space and escape the adverse effects of damp soil, which promotes the development of diseases. Use tomato stakes 1.5-2m long and push them into the ground near the base of each plant.
As the plants grow, use raffia or string to tie the stems to the stakes. Push stakes into the ground about 600mm apart, so that the plants have enough room to grow. Make a planting hole about 100mm in front of each stake and position the seedlings carefully angling them towards the stakes slightly. Water plants and then gently pat down the soil around them, being careful not to damage the stems. As the plants grow, you can begin to tie them against the stakes to give them the support they need.
TIP Use new stakes every year, as they can harbour fungus. Instead of round stakes, buy square ones to prevent slippage. Use soft ties, such as old stockings – not string or wire.
are a good way to give tomato plants the regular watering they need. Sink a small flowerpot into the ground near the base of each stake. Pour water into this every day so that it fills up and then slowly drains into the soil near the plants.
Another method is to remove the top from the neck of a two-litre plastic bottle, cut the bottle in half and sink the neck into the ground. Fill it with water every day. During the growing season, tomatoes need regular feeding, so use this water reservoir for applying water-soluble fertiliser. You can also feed the tomatoes with liquid manure made from nettle or comfrey.
Mulching is essential to stop weeds and water evaporation. Use lucerne, sugar cane or composted bark in a layer up to 50mm deep. Remember to mulch only on damp soil to keep the existing moisture in, otherwise it stops rain reaching the roots.
Inspect plants regularly. Check in the early morning or early evening – it will only take a few minutes a day.
Water anything that’s dry, have a quick look for signs of pests or diseases, remove dead leaves or unwanted shoots and harvest anything that’s ready. As well as pinching out small shoots, top growth can be pinched back to control the overall height.
In the past, some European gardeners have claimed to protect their tomato plants from mildew by piercing the young plants with copper wires at two points along, and at right angles to, the main stem. Though the method has never been scientifically proven, it is possible that copper compounds form in the sap and attack the fungi that cause mildew.
Ripen tomatoes indoors if they are slow to ripen in autumn to avoid frost damage. Bring them into a dry, frost-free room and store them in brown paper bags, newspaper or fruit boxes. You will find that they ripen up in due course. If they refuse to ripen, they can still be turned into green tomato chutney.
When sunshine is at a premium, follow the old-fashioned practice of using backing boards to reflect sunlight onto your sun-loving tomatoes. Cover a board with aluminium foil, prop it against a support and angle it so that it catches the sun’s rays and bounces them onto the ripening fruit.
Plant marigolds around tomatoes to reduce infestations of whitefly.
In the past, some European gardeners have claimed to protect their tomato plants from mildew by piercing the young plants with copper wires at two points along, and at right angles to, the main stem. Though not scientifically proven, it is possible that copper compounds form in the sap and attack the fungi that cause mildew.
Tomato booster: When tomatoes begin to bloom, mix two large spoonfuls of Epsom salts in 5 litres of water and pour onto the soil around the plants. The magnesium and sulphur in the salts encourage healthy fruits.
You may notice that a tomato’s suckers, like the other green parts of the plant, have a very pungent smell. It is said that if you place tomato suckers on the leaves of cabbages or other brassicas, the smell of the tomato will disorientate cabbage white butterflies and cabbage moths.
The little shoots that appear between the main stem and branches, especially during early stages of their development. If they are not pinched out, the tomato plant will use its energy to become bushy, and fruit production will be reduced. Do not pinch out the side shoots on bush tomatoes, as they will bear fruit.
A large, smooth, blemish-free fruit with meaty flesh.
An heirloom variety with a dark skin and good flavour.
Another heirloom, a large-fruited, beefsteak-type.
A very prolific cherry tomato that produces large trusses of yellow oval or pear-shaped fruit.
A late variety with small, very tasty fruits.
A green, apricot-sized fruit that ripens to yellow. Produces tomatoes until winter.
A reliable producer, even for inexperienced growers.
Beefsteak variety from the US that has large, often 1.8kg, fruit. In the 1930s, selling at a dollar a plant, it enabled its grower to pay off his mortgage in six years.
An elongated plum tomato, ideal for making tomato sauces and pizzas, or other Italian cooking. A bushy plant, it doesn’t need staking.
ROUGE DE MARMANDE 2 AND SUPER-MARMANDE
Early-producing varieties with large fruits.
A prolific, disease-resistant variety that is a good choice for warm climates.
A giant, disease-resistant, pear-shaped fruit.
SUPER SWEET 100
One of the cherry tomatoes that produces red or yellow, sometimes pear-shaped, fruit.
A compact variety that is excellent to grow pots. Doesn’t need staking but should be kept off the ground. Small, tasty fruit.