Growing tomatoes

Article by: Nadia Hassani  |  Picture by: Ted Rosen
Growing tomatoes
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Tomatoes come in a wide variety of tastes, shapes, colours and sizes that you can use in fresh salads or process and freeze for sauces and soups.
They need sunny locations with well-drained soil. Although tomatoes are vigorous growers, they require a relatively small space for large production. This article tells you how to select tomato seeds and plants, how to plant tomatoes step by step, and how to maintain, prune and harvest tomatoes.

Growing tomatoes at a glance
Tomatoes are a cold-sensitive crop that requires a sunny location and warm temperatures. The soil should be mixed with compost, well-drained and kept moist but not soggy. Plant tomatoes when the soil has warmed and there is no danger of a late frost. To speed up the process of warming up the soil, cover it with black plastic for a couple weeks before planting.

To choose from the broad variety of tomatoes, ask other gardeners in your area which varieties grow best, and choose varieties that have been specially bred for disease resistance.

The maturity of the different types varies greatly, from early tomatoes that take as little as 60 days from seed to harvest, to large tomatoes, which take up to 90 days and ripen in late summer.

Properly pruned tomatoes require a relatively small space for large production. Depending on the type, a healthy tomato plant can yield more than 5kg.

Tomatoes must be kept off the ground. There are different types of tomato supports available. Allow at least 1 square foot of space per tomato plant to provide access and avoid overcrowding. The more leaves a tomato plant can present to the sun, the better the quality of the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family. Plant them in a location where no aubergine, pepper, potatoes or tomatillos (husk tomatoes) were grown the previous year.

Plants or seeds?
It is best to buy healthy, sturdy tomato seedlings from a local nursery or garden centre. Starting tomato seedlings indoors requires a sunny, south-facing window and additional light, otherwise the seedlings will get spindly. Buying seedlings also allows you to try out without much effort several different varieties to find out which ones grow best in your garden. If you prefer to start your tomatoes from seed and have the favourable conditions described above, see the how-to about seed starting.

After purchasing your seedlings give them 4 to 7 days to adjust to your area before planting (see more about hardening off seedlings before planting). During that time, water them daily or twice a day in hot weather.
Good and bad companions for tomatoes
Good companions for tomatoes are asparagus, beans, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peppers and several herbs including, basil, borage, chives, mint, parsley, sage and thyme. Tomatoes do not grow well next to sweetcorn, dill and potatoes.
Planting tomato seedlings
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1. Dig a furrow 6 to 8cm deep and long enough to fit the roots as well as one-half to two-thirds of the stem. If you are supporting the plant with a stake, drive it into the ground before planting – doing this afterwards may damage the tender tomato roots.

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2. Sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons bone meal (available in garden centres and nurseries) into the furrow.

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3. Gently lie down the tomato in the furrow with the leaves towards the supporting stake.

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4. Snip off all lower side shoots that will be covered with soil.

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5. Carefully bend the leafy top upwards out of the furrow without damaging the stem.

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6. Fill the furrow with soil while you are gently holding onto the leafy top, bending it upwards.

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7. As you fill the furrow, make the leafy top come upright out of the soil.

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8. Gently compress the soil around the stem. Water the seedling immediately.
Rash from tomato vines
Tomato vines can cause a mild rash. Protect yourself by wearing long sleeves and gloves when handling tomato plants, and wash your hands and arms thoroughly with soap and water immediately after contact.
Caring for tomatoes
Tomatoes must be watered often. Water daily until the seedlings are established. After that, water as often as is needed to keep the soil moist but not soggy.

Tomatoes should be fertilised with a balanced fertiliser (equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) at least three times: the first time after transplanting the seedlings, the second time when the plant carries full-size yet still green tomatoes, and the third time a couple of weeks after the first tomatoes ripen.

Mulching around tomato plants to prevent weeds is essential. Otherwise, if you pull weeds or till the soil around your tomato plants, you risk damaging their sensitive roots.
Economical mulch for tomatoes
An inexpensive way to keep tomatoes weed-free is to cover the soil around the plant with corrugated cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper. Cut it into strips to fit around the plants. To hold it down, spray it with water, then add a thin layer of soil.
Supporting and pruning tomatoes
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1. To keep tomatoes off the ground, different supports are commercially available, including tomato cages, trellises, ladders and towers. Whatever you select, keep in mind that the sturdier, the better. With its abundant foliage and fruit load, a tomato plant must carry a lot of weight. The support must be firmly anchored in the ground so the plant will not topple.

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2. Tomato plants grow rapidly – in the first month, it doubles in size every 12 to 15 days. It produces lots of side shoots called suckers that must be removed because they weaken the plant and reduce the quality of the fruit. Uncontrolled growth leads to dense foliage that is a breeding ground for plant disease, especially in wet weather.

The suckers emerge between the main stem and a side branch. Remove all suckers as soon as possible. Grab the sucker between your thumb and index and bend it back and forth until it breaks off. It is not recommended to use scissors or a knife, as you can easily rip off vital tissue from the stem. If the suckers have become too large, however, remove them with scissors. This pruning should be repeated every few days.

3. About a month before the first frost, cut the tops of the tomato plant so it can concentrate its energy in ripening the tomatoes are already on the vine.
Growing tomatoes in containers
Tomatoes are very suitable for container growing, as long as you choose small, compact or dwarf varieties that were specially bred for container growing. Many container varieties do not require pruning.
Harvesting and storing tomatoes
Pick tomatoes when they are fully ripe but still firm and keep them out of the sun after picking. Remove the tomato from the vine with a twist, taking care not to damage the vine.

All raw tomatoes should be stored at room temperature in containers that allow them to breathe, not in plastic bags or airtight containers. With the exception of cherry tomatoes, tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator, which makes them lose their flavour.
Ripening green tomatoes
Their flavour will not be the same as vine-ripened tomatoes but if cold weather hits before you can harvest your last tomatoes, you can ripen green tomatoes indoors. Place them in a single layer on a tray lined with newspaper or in a cardboard box with ventilation holes. Green tomatoes do not need light to turn red. Check them often, as they may rot.
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