There’s nothing like the taste of a fresh tomato, picked straight from the vine, and the plants are so easy to grow that if you like tomatoes there’s really no excuse not to!
Types of Tomato
Tomatoes come in all sorts of different shapes, sizes, and even colours. Little cherry tomatoes are perfect for salads, while great big beefsteak tomatoes are great with your fried breakfast. Standard tomatoes are ideal to slice in your sandwiches, and delicious plum tomatoes are perfect for cooking into sauces or bottling.
Cordon varieties need a cane or string to support them, and the side shoots need to be removed to encourage fruit to grow. Bush tomato varieties are self-supporting, but take up a lot more room and the fruits often end up trailing on the grounds where they are in danger from pests. Hanging basket tomatoes are actually miniature bush tomato plants, and are perfect if you don’t have much space, or maybe you just fancy a change from the usual hanging basket flowers!
While tomatoes are grown more successfully in greenhouses, some varieties are suitable for growing outdoors, though you may have to wait a bit longer for your crop to ripen.
If you are buying tomato seeds to sow yourself, read the packets before making your selection based on the type of tomato you want to grow. If you’re feeling adventurous you might try more than one variety. If you are buying tomato plants, ask advice at your local garden centre on the best type to buy.
Growing From Seed
To grow tomatoes from seed, you’ll need some seeds of course, a pot or tray to grow them in, and compost. You can grow seeds in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill, and the perfect time to start growing is late march to early april. You can get a head start by planting in early march if you have a heated propagator.
Fill your pot or tray with compost and make sure it’s nice and damp. Scatter the seeds on the top, making sure they are well spread-out, and cover with vermiculite. If you don’t have any vermiculite, a very fine scattering of compost will do.
Baby tomato plants should start to appear in about two weeks. When they are large enough to handle, transplant into separate pots.
Three inch pots are about the right size for transplanting your seedlings into. You need one pot for each plant. Fill your pots with compost, then make a hole in the compost into which you will drop your seedling. Make the hole deep enough that part of the stem as well as the root will fit in it. Hold your seedling gently by the leaf (never hold by the stem as you can easily damage the plant this way), and use a dibber (something like a lollipop stick is perfect for this) to gently ease the root ball out of the pot.
Lower your seedling into its new pot and gently firm the compost around it. By burying part of the stem as well as the roots, you will make sure your plant grows good and strong. Water well and keep in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill. When the roots start to come through the bottom of the pot, you can transplant your tomato into a larger pot.
Planting in Grow Bags
By May your tomatoes should be ready to move into grow bags – you’ll know they’re ready when the first flower truss has started to appear. Tomato plants thrive in grow bags, as their roots don’t need to go too deep, and the compost in grow bags is enriched with nutrients to give the plants a good start.
Start by giving your grow bag a good shake, and maybe even a bit of a bash, to break up the compacted compost inside. Pierce a couple of holes in the underside of the bag for drainage, then position your grow bag where it is going to stay, and shake the compost so that it is evenly distributed, slightly higher in the middle. Cut out holes in the top of the bag – grow bags are often marked where you need to cut. You can fit two or three tomato plants in a bag.
Your tomato plants should be having a good soak in a tray of water before you transplant them into the grow bags. Scoop some compost out of the grow bag to make a hole for your plant. Take your young plant and tap the pot gently to release the plant from it.
Gently tease the roots free and place the plant into the hole you’ve made. Fill in compost around the plant so that some of the stem is covered as well – the plant will put out extra roots from the stem, enabling it to soak up water and nutrients better. Water well.
You’ll need to devise a frame to support your tomato plants. Canes won’t stand up well enough on their own in a grow bag, so you’ll need some extra support for them. If you are growing in a greenhouse, you may be able to attach strings somewhere, which can then be tied loosely to the plant to hold it up.
Planting in Pots and Containers
If you plan to grow your tomatoes in pots, you’ll need at least 9” size pots. Follow the directions above, using pots filled with soil-less/peat-free compost instead of grow bags. If you are growing hanging basket tomatoes, the plants will be smaller but the growing method is much the same.
Tips for Growing Healthy Tomatoes
If you are growing cordon tomatoes, you will get more fruit if you create a single-stemmed plant. To do this, pinch out any side shoots that start growing – you’ll see them appear where the leaves join the main stem.
Cordon plants need stopping at some point, otherwise they will carry on putting their energy into growing instead of fruiting. Pinch out the top of the plant when you have about four sets of flowering trusses to encourage the plant to put its energies into producing better fruit.
Make sure you water the plants regularly, particularly on hot summer days. Irregular watering can cause problems such as fruit splitting and blossom end rot.
Feed your tomato plants using a high potash tomato fertilizer. Once a week is about right.
Although tomatoes like heat, in summer the sun can get too strong in a greenhouse. Protect your plants by hanging old net curtains in the windows or you can use a proprietry greenhouse wash for shading (which can be easily cleaned off in the autumn). This will allow enough light through while protecting your plants from the strong sunlight.
Keep checking your plants for evidence of whitefly and aphids. If you see any, spray with diluted washing-up liquid. Growing marigolds near your tomato plants helps to keep these pests away by encouraging ladybirds and hoverflies.
If you find you have lots of green tomatoes left over at the end of the season, you can either make green tomato chutney, or put the tomatoes in a drawer or cupboard with a banana – you’ll find they soon ripen.