How To Grow Tomatoes
Growing tomatoes can be an obsession.
Delightful to eat, really full of flavour and having a genuinely different more intense tomato taste than those bought in shops – growing tomatoes can be very rewarding. Unfortunately, they are also tricky to grow.
This knowledge heaps the pressure on a novice gardener attempting to grow tomatoes. The most common problem in growing tomatoes is blight. If you have the space than investing in a plastic greenhouse is my recommendation. If not, resort to disease resistance F1 varieties. I hope this guide on how to grow tomatoes will help too.
How To Grow Tomatoes – Varieties
Tomatoes can be divided into the following two main types:
- Bush tomatoes (determinate)
As the name suggests, these grow as a bush and do not need special pruning or support. Bush tomatoes include many cherry tomatoes and tumbling varieties suitable for growing in pots or hanging baskets.
- Cordon tomatoes (indeterminate)
These varieties generally produce standard size tomatoes as well as the larger beefsteak varieties. The cordon varieties need both supporting and careful pruning. The pruning regime is especially important to encourage the plant to invest its energy on a controlled number of ripe fruit, otherwise the short summers typical of the UK climate can leave a gardener staring at a large leaf covered plant covered in small green tomatoes – that never have time to ripen.
Tomatoes come in many different shapes, colours, and sizes. It is worth considering growing a few plants of varieties well know for performing well – such as F1 varieties or cherry tomatoes, to complement any experiments with more exotic types.
Growing Tomatoes From Seed
When is the best time to start growing tomatoes from seed? I like to start the germination process very early, in January or February on a warm window sill. My theory is that starting early means that I’ll have ripe tomatoes earlier and the harvest will be spread out over more weeks.
I use small plastic pots nearly full with multi-purpose compost. Then I water the pots to make sure that the soil is wet, and only after this do I sprinkle a few seeds on top of the soil (about 3 or 4). I deliberately wet the soil first before sowing the seed as this avoids the seeds either being dragged too deep by the water into the soil, or washed off the top of the pot.
The final two steps are to cover the seeds with a thin layer of perlite and wrap the pots with cling film. This avoids the need to water until the seeds have germinated. As soon as I see the first seedlings I remove the cling film.
I prefer not to buy tomato seedlings from garden centres as it ends up being expensive (compared to seeds) and I find they fruit later in the summer.
At this stage the seedlings are too small to pot on. I prefer to wait until the plants grow at least two tomato like leaves. This is a sign that each seedling has developed a good root structure, and although this sometimes makes it a little tricky to pull the roots apart of seedlings sharing a pot (using a pencil helps), overall I think waiting makes the potting on process more reliable and leads to healthier plants.
How To Grow Tomatoes – Potting On
A key decision is how long to leave tomato seedlings growing indoors versus the more healthy full sun option out of doors, but with the potential lethal risk of frost. This is one of the reasons why I recommend growing tomatoes in pots in a tomato greenhouse, it just makes the process a lot easier.
When the weather is ready, the trick is to pot the tomato seedling placed deep, covering up branches with soil. Tomatoes are like geraniums in that they throw out new roots with ease. This process of planting deep will lead to a much stronger plant able to produce more tomatoes. You can see I like to use a big pot, almost 30 cm wide and deep. The better the compost the healthier the plant, homemade compost is ideal.
How To Grow Tomatoes – Pruning
For the commonly grown indeterminate types of tomatoes it is important to prune regularly. Left unpruned a tomato plan will turn into a very thick bush and then collapse in a heap. Removing unnessary branches both concentrates growth into the fruit, and perhaps just as importantly, allows light and air to circulate around the plant. This can help stop plants getting the dreaded blight.
Nip off diagonal side shoot branches as soon as they appear. These are the ones that appear in the elbow between the trunk and a lateral branch, shooting up at 45 degrees. However, don’t remove other branches not in an elbow between a trunk and a branch. These branches are likely to be the fruiting spurs (trusses) you are waiting for!
How To Grow Tomatoes – Flowering
The picture shows the happy moment when flowers appear that will soon be replaced by little green balls ready to bulge into glorious ripe tomatoes. This process can take some time, especially in wet summers. The best ripening weather would be a hot and sunny July and August, complemented by lots of watering.
For indeterminate tomatoes it is frequently recommended to limit the number of flowering trusses to around six. Once these have developed, any further trusses that form are pruned away to concentrate energy into the developing fruit. Similarly, the growing tip should be removed, and careful attention given to removing any unnecessary side shoots and new stems growing from the base of the plant.
For determinate varieties (bush varieties like cherry and tumbling tomatoes) there is no need to limit the number of trusses.
Tomato compost should always be kept moist. Tomato plants tell you when they are unhappy, they sulk like a teenager, with droppy shoulders and turned down leaves. The joy is that with a little water they soon return to standing tall and bushy.
A tomato plant laden with tomatoes has to support a considerable amount of weight. In the picture above, taken at my allotment, I have hammered into the ground a 1.5 metre stake, of which about 50cm is below ground. I then use twine all the way up the plant to support the trunk, as well as additional twine to support the branches.
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