Tomatoes are an unique plant when it comes to home gardening – for so many of us it’s one of the first plants we love to try.
After all, picking a fresh ripe tomato from the vine and popping it into your mouth to be reminded of what real homegrown tomatoes actually taste like is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
However, tomatoes can also be a little finicky. Yet, with a bit of know-how and some tricks up your sleeve you’ll be a master at your best-ever tomatoes in no time.
Favourite cherry tomato: Camp Joy
Favourite salad tomato: Rouge de Marmande
Favourite preserving tomato: Roma or Red Pear
Getting your tomatoes thriving this season comes down to a few factors…
Tomato varieties generally fall under two main categories – determinate and indeterminate.
Determinate varieties are often also called ‘bush’ tomatoes, because they tend to grow in more of a bush structure. They tend to grow between 90-120 cm in height, upon which flowers blossom at the tips of the branches, and the fruit will generally then all ripen at once. Roma are one of the more common determinate/bush varieties.
Indeterminate varieties are ‘climbing’ types – they will grow as a vine and need stakes for support. They’ll usually grow between 1.8-2.4 m and will produce fruit that ripens consistently throughout the season until the warm weather ends. Many varieties of tomatoes are indeterminate, including most cherries, Beefsteak, Black Russian and Grosse Lisse.
Deciding which variety to go for in your backyard will depend on a couple of things:
First up, what do you want them for? Do you want tomatoes that will fruit throughout the season, providing a steady harvest of fruit you can eat fresh? Or do you want an abundance of tomatoes all at once for making passata and preserves?
Secondly, how much space do you have? If ground space is really limited, cherry varieties – both indeterminate and some which are known as semi-determinate – are perfect for tight spots. They’ll grow happily in pots on balconies, and small backyards. If the pot is tall enough, staking may not even be required, allowing them instead to drape over the sides. Try: Cherry Camp Joy, Cherry Red Pear and Cherry Yellow Honey Bee.
Meanwhile, requiring fairly little ground space again, but requiring some staking and some vertical space to move – so suited for small to large backyards –you could opt for other indeterminate/climbing varieties that will grow taller and provide larger fruit that’s great for slicing. Try Beefsteak, Black Russian, Oxheart and Green Zebra.
Small to large backyards will also suit determinate/bush varieties where you have space for plants to gain a bit of width. Also suitable for any spots where wind might be a bit of a problem with staking climbing types. Try Roma San Marzano, Thai Pink Egg and Principe Borghese.
When it comes to the best position for your tomatoes, chase the sun. The more the better. Those in tropical zones up north of Australia may want to invest in a little bit of shadecloth to protect your tomatoes from any harsh sun once they’re fruiting. But for everyone else in Australia, pick the sunniest spot you have in your space. So long as there’s some good leaf foliage on your plant, this helps to protect the fruit from excessive sun exposure.
Also be sure to pick a spot you haven’t just grown any other nightshade or solanaceae plants recently – potatoes, eggplant, capsicums, or more tomatoes – to minimise the risk of disease. Meanwhile, if you’ve had a spot you’ve planted a green manure over winter, your tomatoes – which are heavy feeders – will love those extra nutrients in the soil.
Seeds or seedlings
It’s a truly satisfying thing taking your tomato plants from being a tiny seed to an abundant fully-grown, fruit-giving plant. Growing your own seedlings is a wonderful skill to have, and needless to say, it’s also cheaper. Once any sign of the last frost has passed in your area, it’s a good time to get started on your tomato seedlings.
To get yours going, buy some quality organic potting mix, or make your own – we have a recipe here that works well – and fill seedling trays.
Place two seeds in each pot to the same depth of the seed’s width. Cover with a little layer of soil and pat down lightly to ensure the seed is surrounded by soil.
Give it a good watering, and place somewhere protected in a warm spot. Once your seedlings have started germinating, they’ll need warmth, protection and plenty of light.
If you’d like a little more detail on raising seedlings, The Slowpoke has recently posted a helpful guide on growing seedlings, written by the nice young farmers at Grown & Gathered. Green Harvest also have some great info on this too.
In addition, soil blocking is one way of growing seedlings that tomatoes seem to do well with – we’ve written a guide on this before here.
However if you don’t have the time to give growing your own seedlings a shot right now, nor the patience, or the climate in your area is making it a little too hard – say hello to purchased seedlings. It can be darn satisfying to just get cracking straight away.
Preparing beds and planting
Tomatoes like a slightly acidic soil pH of 5.8-7, so test your soil and adjust accordingly. Also add a bit of compost to your soil to increase nutrient levels.
If you’re planting indeterminate/climbing types that will require staking later, it can be a good idea to get these in the ground when planting your tomatoes, to avoid disturbing them later.
If you’ve been raising your own seedlings, ‘harden them off’ by leaving in their pots in the environment they’re about to be planted in to reduce transplant shock.
When planting tomatoes (or any veg for that matter!) make sure the pot is big enough to accommodate for plentiful root growth.
When planting your tomato seedlings into the soil, plant them into the soil up to their first set of true leaves – this will encourage a stronger root system, a stronger plant and more fruit!
There’s a few ways of supporting your indeterminate/climbing tomatoes as they grow. The main reason for supporting tomatoes is to keep the fruit from touching the ground and rotting.
One traditional and easy way is with a single long untreated wood or metal stake that the plant can continue to be tied to as it grows taller. Staking allows your plant to spread a little wider than trellising, and this is a good method for most gardens, as well as tomatoes grown in pots where more elaborate methods won’t fit.
Trellising tomatoes can be done a few ways. One option is to set up an overhead bar and tie strings from the base of the plant to the overhead bar, twisting around the main stems of the plant and training them up the string as they go. This works well if you prune the plant to create two main leaders up two separate strings.
Caging tomatoes is a good method for propping up determinate/bush tomatoes, but can also work for indeterminate/climbing tomatoes, provided you make the cage high enough to accommodate growth. These are made by creating a cage around the tomato plant with concrete reinforcement metal.
A good guide on tomato supports, and when to use each one can be found here.
If you’re stuck without a good amount of light in your place, other than spots up high (ie, some apartment balconies, or shady backyards), upside down tomatoes might be your best bet. Literally, this method means growing your plants hanging upside down from a hanger. You can find some awesome guides for how to make your own hanging pots for this here, here and here.
It can be a little trickier to master a high yield from growing them this way, so another option is to try a semi-determinate cherry variety from a regular hanging basket.
For more tips…
Sustainable Gardening Australia have a nice little page on all else you might need to know.
Good luck out there this season folks! And may your tomatoes grow high (or round) and bring you much edible sunshine…