May the roof above us never fall in
And may we good companions beneath it never fall out.

~Irish blessing

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Experts' Tomato Growing Tips

This is only our second Summer growing tomatoes. It's been a steep learning curve, admittedly mostly through error, and I still need all the help I can get. I've been researching. Here's some advice from the experts...


From Jackie French:

Steps to great home-grown tomatoes

Step 1: Plant
Tomatoes can go in their own nice sunny bed and must have at least four hours of sunlight a day. But you can also put them in with flowers or in a big pot on the patio. (Soil in small pots usually turns to concrete). Try a cherry tomato in a pot in your office, by a sunny window, and offer the ripe fruit to passers-by!
You can either sow tomato seeds from a packet bought at the nursery or buy seedlings from the nursery. I'd do the latter if you haven't grown tomatoes before, so you know that those little darlings you're watering are tomatoes and not weeds that have sprung up instead.
Plant them about half a metre apart; water them with a light spray from the hose or sprinkler — not a hard jet of water or you may damage them. Water every day or two till they're as high as your ankle and their roots are nicely established.

Step 2: Mulch and feed
It is almost impossible to overfeed tomatoes. That's why they spring up in badly treated sewerage and chookyards among almost pure manure. We picked 40 kilos from one bush once that had sprung up at the end of the henhouse in almost pure hen droppings. Then we gave up counting.
The more you feed tomatoes, the more you'll get. If you don't feed them, even if your soil is naturally fertile, you probably won't get a decent crop.
If you're a new gardener, just buy a complete plant food (an organic one like Dynamic Lifter is best) and use according to the instructions on the packet. I use home-made compost and old hen manure on ours, but that's a lesson for another day.
Tomatoes do much better if they are mulched. Mulch keeps down the weeds so you don't have to spend hours hauling them out and stops the moisture in the soil evaporating.
Tomatoes form roots up their stems and stalk if they are mulched. The more roots, the better they grow, so mulch right up to the stem if you can. I don't bother to stake my tomatoes initially — the branches that sprawl on the ground take root, then I stake them up and have another tomato plant.

Step 3: Pruning
Don't bother to prune tomatoes. Tomatoes ripen in response to heat, not sunlight, so pruning off branches so they ripen earlier just doesn't work. Pruning is just one more task that gardeners have burdened themselves with. If you are a pruning fanatic, prune the tomatoes to two stems, or laterals. The lateral below the first flower truss is usually the most vigorous. But as I said, why bother?

Step 4: Staking tomatoes
Staked tomatoes look neat. Unstaked ones fall over and the branches sprawl all over the place, but sprawling tomato branches form roots on the bottom so the tomato vine is much more vigorous (if you don't mind wading through a couple of acres of plant while you look for ripe tomatoes).
If you are going to stake your tomatoes, use old stockings or bits of cloth rather than string, which can cut into the soft branches. Don't tie too tightly as you can cut off circulation as the branches grow bigger. Just loop the stocking round the branch very loosely, then loop it again around the stake. This gives leeway in windy weather so branches are less likely to snap if pulled away from the stake.

Step 5: Watering tomatoes
Try to avoid overhead watering — it can splash disease spores up onto the leaves and increase humidity so fruit splits and fungal and mildew problems increase. Slip the hose under the mulch if possible or use trickle irrigation. If you must overhead water, do it in the evening (contrary to most advice) — morning watering means they'll be wet in the heat of the day, which most disease spores love.

Another solution is to plant the tomatoes on slightly raised rows, then make furrows between the rows and water the furrows.

From Peter Cundall:

Of all the vegetables grown in gardens, tomatoes are by far the most popular. They grow just about anywhere and in almost any soil. And there are many different varieties you can grow.

Some that grow well in Tasmania, but also in the subtropics, or temperate areas are: 'Money Maker' – called that because it probably made a lot of dough for someone. It grows to about 1.5 metres and is covered, almost to the ground, with great trusses of beautiful tomatoes. Another is 'Cindel' - a beauty, which is a bit expensive to buy, but well worth it. They flower quickly and can sometimes have fruit ready to eat, even in a cool area, at about Christmas time. But the great ones are cherry tomatoes such as 'Sweet Bite', which grows well, crops magnificently and is extraordinarily disease resistant.

To select seedlings, choose the short sturdy plants because they will grow better than the lanky ones which should be avoided. “They'll grow, and bear fruit, but they're weak so go for the little sturdy ones. Before planting, look at the root system - if the roots have completely occupied the pot that's good because it stimulates flower development.

Don’t add fertiliser to the hole because tomato plants have an extremely low need for most fertilisers, especially nitrogen. Give them too much and they grow like mad because they are greedy and you get masses of foliage at the expense of fruit. But remember all tomato plants are potash hungry. So add a pinch of sulphate of potash to make the leaves lovely and firm and disease resistant. But above all, potash induces early flowering, and if you add more as they're growing, you'll get marvellous flavoured tomatoes.

Tomatoes also like warm soil. Don’t mulch them because it makes the soil cold. Instead use ordinary horticultural plastic. Cut it and put it around the plants and it has the most amazing effect. It makes the soil into a kind of a heat bank, warming the soil.

Viewer, Barbara Sullivan Wyndell, sent Gardening Australia an email saying she had major problems with hertomatoes. “They are flopping around all over the place, especially when they bear fruit. How on earth can you stake them? We've tried, but they still flop around. What can we do?"

The answer is quite simple. Don't use one stake, use several. Try putting three in and add more as the plant grows. Drive them in firmly and when the tomato plant starts to send out side shoots, tie these to a stake so that each stake has its own shoot and branch. If you have five branches, then you should have five stakes. Just tie them on as they grow to finish with the most amazing crop of magnificent tomatoes which are lovely and firm.

Planting tomatoes is one of the great joys of life and an indication that the weather is getting warm. When planting, give them room to move. There is nothing to be gained by planting tomatoes closely, you don't get more fruit. But a big problem with tomato plants in cool, temperate areas, at this time of year, is a cold wind at night. It blows them around, and checks growth. And once growth has been checked by cold, they never take off.

To protect them buy some plastic by the metre and cut it to size. Slide it over the top of the stakes, pull the plastic tight to make a little greenhouse with the top open and this protects the plant and keeps it warm.

If you want to grow tomatoes but you don't have a garden, try growing them in pots because they will grow to perfection. The pots are cheap to buy and will last for years. A tomato perfect for a pots is 'Patio Prize' or 'First Prize'.

From Don Burke:

2UE tomato growing tips

Tomatoes need
* Full sun; ie, 8 hours direct sunlight daily
* Deep, free-draining, fertile soil
* Consistent moisture
* Regular feeding
* Shelter from strong winds
* Support of a stake (sometimes)

There's a huge choice available in tomatoes, so read the label carefully, or ask the staff at the garden centre, to find out which type is which when you're shopping for seedlings. In general, though there are two main types of tomato plants:

Tall-growing varieties: these reach 2m or more and require the support of one or more stakes.

Bush types: these reach waist or knee height and do not need the support of a stake. In the bush class, there are also dwarf and pendulous forms which are suitable for hanging baskets.

Planting tips
Choose a sunny spot. Dig the planting site over well. For each plant prepare a square of soil 60cm x 60cm. Dig it over to the depth of the blade of a spade then add two or three cupped handfuls of Dynamic Lifter. Dig this through until the soil is fine and crumbly. If you are planting more than one tomato plant, space them about a metre apart. If you're growing a tall-growing variety which will need a stake, add the stake now, at planting time. As the tomato plant grows, tie it to the stake to keep it stable and prevent damage from strong winds.

Water; mulch
Water in the plant well after planting then lay a thin mulch (2-3cm deep) around the plants. Use lucerne hay, sugar cane mulch, pea straw or some other coarse organic matter. Tomatoes need a steady supply of water over summer, so don't let plants go thirsty for a few days. This will affect or even harm the quality of fruit. Keep up a steady water supply at all times.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders. A month after planting, start additional feeding. Use a soluble fertilser formulated for flowers and fruit and apply it at the rate stated on the pack. Start feeding once every three weeks. As it gets hotter and you water more often, increase this to once a fortnight. Don't overdo it: just mix up the food at the rate specified and always apply fertiliser and water to the soil around the plant. One watering can full of fertiliser solution is enough for one plant.

Tomatoes in pots Tomatoes in pots are much more susceptible to drying out than those in the ground. So, if at all possible, grow your tomatoes in the ground. However, the best tomatoes for pots are the smaller-growing bush types.

Pot shape/size: use a big pot - at least twice the size of a bucket. A shape that is as wide as it is tall, or just a little taller, is good.

Cool walls: put the pot inside another, bigger pot - this shades the wall of the pot, stopping the potting mix from heating up in the sun.

Watering: check the soil every morning to see if it's dry, and be prepared to water potted tomato plants more often.

Feeding: feed tomatoes once a fortnight at first but increase to once a week as plants grow and the weather warms. Use a soluble fertiliser formulated for flowers and fruit.

Pest attacks!
Caterpillars (grubs) will eat holes in leaves and green fruit, and fruit fly will lay eggs into ripening fruit. White flies and aphids suck sap from foliage and transmit plant diseases. Both caterpillars and fruit fly can be controlled using organic methods which do not leave chemical residues on crops.
For caterpillars: buy either Dipel or Yates Success.
For fruit fly: use Yates Natures Way Fruit Fly Killer or Eco-Naturalure.
For aphids and whitefly: low toxicity pyrethrum sprays will do.

Yellowing leaves?
As plants grow, the lower leaves go yellow and die. That is normal, so simply snip of any yellow leaves. However, if many leaves go yellow or the yellowing is accompanied by unhealthy looking blotches and spots, or if the plant wilts despite regular watering, the plant has probably contracted a bacterial, fungal or virus disease. Spraying with a copper-based fungicide such as Kocide or Fungus Fighter may help in some cases but usually the plant is doomed and ought be pulled out and disposed of. Don't grow tomatoes in that spot again for at least two years.

Copyright 2008 CTC Productions

Plus a recipe:

Cordial for Tomatoes - Vasilis Garden Viewers Tip

Make your tomatoes a "cordial" by soaking eggshells in water for 5 days. Then water the tomato plants with this "cordial". It's a great calcium drink which makes the toms turn deep green. When all the water is used, bury the shells near the base of the tomato plant. Debbie Tamplin

My note: 9/01/09 I made some of this up today by putting a dozen crushed eggshells, in to a 2 litre milk bottle and filling it with water. I will try it in 5 days and see!

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