Helen’s guide to growing tomatoes


Helen Simpson, from the Mushroom Shed, tells you all you need to know about growing tomatoes. She has also written articles about growing basil, brassicas, chilli, coriander, cucurbits, garlic, ginger & turmeric, mint, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries and lesser known herbs.

Also, see Robin Gale-Baker’s article on the Sustainable Macleod website.

Additional material from Guy’s tips: reisetomate tomatoes.

Reisetomate tomatoes (February 2020)

The picture is of a variety of tomato called reisetomate, which I have been growing this year. Each of the bulbous bits is like a whole tomato and you can pluck them off and eat them individually. A bit like taking segments off a mandarin. It’s actually rather tasty.

‘Reisen’ means ‘to travel’ in German. Apparently, the Germans call this tomato ‘the traveller’ because it can be torn apart one piece at a time without a knife while on a journey.

Tomato plant spacing.

At the start of this warm season, my wife and I set up two identical raised beds for growing tomatoes. Let’s call them ‘neglect’ and ‘nurture’. Each bed had 8 tomato frame cages, with each bed growing the same 8 varieties of tomato. In the ‘neglect’ bed, there were 2 tomato plants per cage, no removal of side shoots, and no bird netting. In the ‘nurture’ bed, there was 1 plant per cage, regular maintenance, bird netting and the quiet singing of sweet lullabies. The question being investigated was the extent to which, in terms of tomato yield, the nurturing would offset the halving of the number of plants.

The results were rather different for the different types of tomato. For the large, beefsteak tomatoes, the ‘nurture’ bed yielded more tomatoes, even with half the number of plants, and they were better quality and larger – a major win for the ‘nurture’ bed. For the small tomatoes (say tigerella and below), neglect had less of an effect and the ‘neglect’ bed yielded more (although not twice as many) fruit and of similar quality – a win for ‘neglect’. Finally, for the sauce tomatoes (San Marzano and Roma), many in the ‘neglect’ bed, but none in the ‘nurture’ bed, suffered from blossom end rot – a win for ‘nurture’.

So, in conclusion, large beefsteak and sauce tomatoes should both be grown in ‘nurtured’ beds where the plants are widely spaced (i.e. 1 plant per cage). Small tomatoes are more tolerant of ‘neglect’ and close spacing (e.g. 2 plants per cage).

tomatoAfter a long, cold winter, feeling the warmth of the sun and seeing spring bulbs flower rightly causes many people to start their summer vegetable garden, particularly the tomato seedlings.

Tomatoes can be commenced from seed – start them in small containers on a sunny window sill. When seedlings are around 10cm, pot them up into a larger pot, then finally into the garden.

Alternatively, purchase seedlings, which can be planted directly into the garden.

The traditional ‘planting into the garden’ day is Cup Day. However, as long as you are confident night time temperatures won’t fall below about 5°C, you can plant out earlier. Around Nillumbik and Banyule, mid October is the time I would recommend. However, some people plant their seedlings in the garden earlier and protect them from cold weather at night with an upturned bucket or cloche.

Varieties that are more cold hardy include ‘potato leaf’ types (e.g. Stupice) and cherry tomatoes (e.g. Tommy Toe or Sweetie).

Pots or garden?

Tomatoes can be grown either in large pots (sized around 40 cm wide and 40 cm deep) or in the garden. It is important to use fresh, good quality potting mix in pots, or grow tomatoes in a different place in the garden each year to avoid soil virus build-up (which causes plants to wilt and become unproductive).

Fertilise every 4 weeks or so, to maintain vigorous growth.

‘Indeterminant’ tomato plants grow tall (e.g. Grosse Lisse or Tommy Toe), and need to be tied to a stake as they grow. Two tomato plants can share one stake. ‘Bush’ (or ‘determinant’) tomatoes (e.g. Roma) are usually more compact. Whilst some still need a stake, others (e.g. Tatura Dwarf) are stocky plants and support themselves.

It is best to put the stake in the ground or pot before planting the tomato seedling, to avoid spearing the tomato plant’s roots.

Soil and aspect

Make sure the soil you plant your tomatoes in is friable, with plenty of manure (e.g. chicken manure), compost and lime. Mushroom compost is also an excellent soil conditioner. Use gypsum to break up heavy soil.

Tomatoes enjoy a sunny aspect and can be planted at the back of the veggie patch with shorter veggies at the front. You may need to protect plants from the hot afternoon sun with removable shade cloth in February/March.

Which varieties to plant?

This really depends on personal preference. Consider the following:

  • High yield and reliability: Gross Lisse, Rouge de Marmande, Tigerella, Tommy Toe.
  • Sweet flavour: Black Krim, Black Russian, or yellow tomatoes like Sunray or Jaune Flamme.
  • Colour: Green Grape, Green Zebra, Indigo Rose, Red & Black, Earl of Edgecome (orange), Snow White (white), Black Cherry, Cherokee Purple or Brandywine (purple).
  • Shape: Roma, San Manzano (oval); Gross Lisse, Australian Red (round); Hungarian Heart, Ox Heart (heart shaped); Tommy Toe, Cherry Roma (small).
  • ‘Cooking’ tomatoes: Palmwoods, Roma, San Manzano.
  • Early varieties: Jaune Flamme, Stupice.
  • Tall or short plant: short plants include Riesenstraube, Roma, Tatura Dwarf.

As your tomato plants grow, unless you have a stocky variety, you will need to tie them to a stake. Use a stretchy tie – old pantyhose are ideal.

You may want to pinch out the laterals, which are the side shoots between the main stem and the growing points. This will prevent your plant getting very leafy and dense and will thus allow your tomato fruit more sun. You will probably get less tomatoes by pinching out the laterals, but your tomatoes should be larger.

You could also remove any shoots that start growing near the base of the plant once the plant is established.

Staggered planting

Tomatoes planted in Spring generally start producing fruit from late December to February, depending on variety. To have tomatoes through until May, plant another crop in late December. Tommy Toe is a good variety that will keep producing as the weather gets cooler in May.

Companion planting

Companion plant basil around your tomatoes – just watch out for the snails, who love basil too! [Ed: Here is what Jackie French says on the subject: “Actually, if I had my way myths like ‘basil loves tomato’ would be composted too. ‘Tomatoes love basil’ is one of the great companion planting fallacies. Tomatoes grown with basil won’t do any better or any worse than those grown without it: but if you condemn poor old basil to live his life next to tomatoes he’ll probably get black spot.” It would be great if some readers could comment on their experiences.]

  17 Responses to “Helen’s guide to growing tomatoes”

  1. I transplanted some seedlings about three weeks ago, and they are starting to go yellow from bottom to top – the bottom is nearly yellow, the middle is light green and the emerging foliage still looks green but isn’t as vibrant as it could be. Is this just transplant shock? Perhaps more concerningly, my Black Russian and Sweetbite tomatoes are already putting out flowers – they’re barely 30cm tall! I’ve pinched them off for now so it doesn’t waste energy – any advice?

    • Hi Geoff,

      Yes, it could be transplant shock or too much water. See how they go over the next couple of weeks and, if they still don’t look right, I’d start with some more (still plenty of time to re-start). Don’t be too concerned about plants flowering early if they are still growing taller. If they have stopped growing and started flowering, they may be stressed in some way (e.g. too smaller pot for root growth, soil not rich enough, too little water, etc).

      Regards, Helen

  2. My garden doesn’t get alot of light as I live in a townhouse and the area is quiet small, can you tell me a great producing tomato that doesn’t need as much light as others?

    • Hi George,

      You will need at least half a day’s sun to grow tomato plants and all varieties are much the same with their requirements. There is unfortunately no variety which will produce in low light.

      Regards, Helen

  3. I have heard that it is best to sterilise the ties between seasons to reduce disease and will be doing that next tomato growing season.

  4. I grow basil next to my tomatoes and lavender in a pot near garden bed to attract the bees and I have great crops of tomatoes, mainly Gross Lisse.

  5. When I can seed the tomato seeds in which month in Melbourne

  6. I planted a random tomato seedling a couple of weeks ago … it’s growing well. Will it produce flowers (and then fruit) or is it too late? How to encourage it to produce flowers/fruit?

  7. After 7 or 8 years of trying to get a descent amount of fruit from Cherokee pourple tomato plants. They can be quite temperamental and suffer from blossom drop in the heat and are suceptable to wilt and blight after too much rain I usually only get a few toms compared to other varieties. The blossom drop can be reduced by up to 90% by shading them with 30% shade cloth – turns out that they like partial shade. Wilt caused by root rot can be sorted with Yates anti rot if you’re quick. It also helps a little with the blight. Anyway the end result was a Cherokee purple plant loaded from top to bottom with tomatoes.

    • I shared a similar experience with a Brandywine Red tomatoes planted in full sun. I had a very hard time managing blossom end rot, and in fact all of them were eventually pulled because I couldn’t even get one. The only variety I have had success with is the regular heirloom ‘beefsteak’ variety which seems to do okay in peak Melbourne summer heat. This year, I will be planting similar varieties to yours like Black Krim, Brandywine Pink and also Cherokee if they have it in stock. I plan on starting them in late Winter with afternoon shade protection, as they prefer cooler conditions.

      On another note, after having planting multiple cherry varieties, I can confirm the Tommy Toe is a jack of all trades and very reliable, all though I actually found the Camp Joy Tomato my favourite because of its sweeter flavour profile.

      Thank you for the tips.


  8. I have grown basil with tomatoes for many years and I can’t see any better growth or fewer pests than tomatoes grown away from basil. I agree that basil suffers a bit from shading if grown next to tomatoes.

    I have a couple of suggestions for making tomato growing easier.

    1. Use perennial stakes rather than wooden ones which rot out in a couple of years. I use old galvanised water pipe – it doesn’t matter that it is rusty inside the pipe. Many of my pipes were from roadside collections and I have not had to retire any yet – I expect they will outlast me. Forget about doomsayers who tell you that using pipe will burn the plant because the pipe will get hot. Very little of the plant is in contact with the metal, much of the metal is shaded by the plant, and any effect is so small it can be ignored.

    2. For cheap, gentle ties, I use torn-up strips of old cotton bed sheets. One sheet would be more than enough for most home gardeners for a season. At the end of the season, the weathered cotton can be dug back into the soil where it will rot and be gone before next spring. You can recycle your old pure cotton sheets or buy then very cheaply from secondhand stores (e.g. Savers, G’boro). Don’t use polyester/cotton as the polyester will not rot. While old pantyhose works well, who has enough old pantyhose for a whole patch of tomato plants? Also, I am still digging up bits of pantyhose I used 20 years ago – if you don’t remove all of it at the end of the growing season, or you compost your plants with some ties still attached it will still be there – it lasts a long time in the ground.

    3. When the plant reaches the height of your stakes, start pinching out the growing tips so it won’t spend energy making more shoots and flowers which will probably never reach maturity. The remaining fruit will then get to a better size and has a better chance of ripening before the cool weather sets in

    4. Watch for any diseased plants and pull them out as soon as you suspect they are sick. They will not produce a useful amount of fruit, or the fruit will be diseased, and the disease may spread to your good plants.

    5. Minimise the use of ‘tomato fertilisers’ which come at a high cost and may lead to over-fertilisation. A handful of blood and bone in the hole at planting time is probably all they need.

    6. After the plant is established you can heap up soil around the stem and the plant will send out additional roots above the original soil level. For a shallow soil (most of Eltham), this will give the plant more effective soil volume to draw nutrients from.

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