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, read Robin Gale-Baker’s guide to growing tomatoes.
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.
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 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.]