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

Additional material from Guy’s tips: reisetomate tomatoes

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.
Maintenance

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.]

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

  1. I successfully trialled some heirlooms in a passive hydroponic bucket set up. I just cut a hole in the lid of the bucket to hold the plant/pot and emersed the bottom 50% of the roots in nutrients. It did require some maintenance with water and nutrient top ups.

    Strong growth and lots of fruit.

  2. Hi guys, just found this page and it’s great!
    I have recently acquired a hothouse, so I was wondering what is the earliest I could sow my tomato seeds in there please?
    Thanks,
    Beck

    • Hi Beck,

      I would say August.

      • I got some baby tomatoes around 4-6 weeks ago. Tricky weather patterns have made me keep pinching the suckers and flowers at the moment. When should I stop doing this – the plants are very healthy and bushy but only around 60cm tall (tommy toe, cherry, black russian). At what point do I stop pinching the suckers given we’ve just had another cold snap?

        • Hi Ck,

          You can pinch out the laterals, plus any suckers at the base of the plant, on an ongoing basis. However, I tend to forget after a while and just let the plant grow, with no obvious harm done. Leave the flowers on, as they will soon start to form tomatoes.

          Unfortunately the weather has been up and down lately but, assuming warmer weather is on its way, you can look forward to strong growth.

          Regards, Helen

  3. Hi, I have two cherry tomato plants in pots. One almost died and other has its leaves drying but still has green tomato. It already severe cold in Melbourne. Can you please guide how do I save my plants so that they can still grow next summer? Should I keep it inside the home? Thank you

    • Hi Ravi,

      You can’t save them. Tomatoes are annuals, which means that they only live for a single season. That season is now over.

  4. I have lots of fruit, but it is taking a long time to ripen this year. Both bush variety and tommy toes are still green. Is anyone else in Melbourne finding a similar problem? Any suggestions for how I might speed this up?

    • Hi Lyn,

      Yes, lots of people are having the same issue this year because of the unusual weather patterns. I think that you just have to wait.

    • Same here. I have lots of small baby Roma but only one is finally turning red out of the 20 or 30 per plant.

    • I was just wondering the same thing. I have only one plant and it’s got about 40 tomatoes on it all different sizes but all green. It’s my first time so I’ll be sad if I don’t get any ripe ones. At what point do we give up on them?

      • Hi Lyn,

        Just hang in there – it has been such an unusual Spring and Summer weatherwise that no one knows. At least some varieties are now ripening.

  5. Do indeterminate tomato plants die during winter in Melbourne or they just grow a bit slower and do not produce fruits?
    Thanks.

    • Hi Cindy,

      All tomato plants die during autumn or early winter in Melbourne.

      • The great majority die, but not all. In Geelong, I have had a few tomato and several capsicum plants survive and thrive for a second season. IOt gives you a head start on the season but it is not not worth any extra effort to try to protect them.
        .

  6. My tomatoes always seem to reach the top of the stake and keep going, they’re about as high as I am tall, now, in early Jan. Should I try to extend the stake or pinch out the plant? I have red and black, mortgage lifter, sweet 100, and ‘red cherry’ growing.

    • Hi Jan,

      If you can extend the stake that would be best (you can pinch out the plant, but it will still grow taller) – another 30 cm should be enough. Sounds like you’ll have a good crop!

      Regards, Helen

  7. Hi,

    My brother, who lives in the Nillumbik area, wants to start growing a few tomatoes from those small tomatoes plants one can buy in small pots from Bunnings. It’s mid-December. Would this be still okay? Or is it really too late in the season?

  8. I planted out my Grosse lisse seedlings in mid october.
    Prepped the bed with compost and blood and bone before planting. Gave them a drink of powdered milk a week later to ensure good calcium level. Did this last year to remedy blossom end rot successfully.
    Plants so far are about 100cm tall and looking healthy. Lots of flowers, so hopefully a decent crop.
    Fortnightly organic lifter.

  9. I planted my seeds in October and they have grown very slowly this year. They are still only about 5cm tall and just starting to grow proper leaves. Ordinarily l would be putting them in the ground now but l am concerned they won’t be ready for another month. Is this going to cause problems?

    • Hi Paul,

      The weather has been a mix of cold and warm this October, so it’s likely the cold patches have set back your seedlings. They should get stronger growth now the weather is more consistently warm, however if you haven’t seen much change in a week, I’d also put some advanced seedlings in. Regards, Helen

    • Mine are the same – very small seedlings under 1′ tall, have had them in a plastic bunniings hot house but we’ve had minimal sun. I am growing a lot from the aldi cherry tomato seedlings this year – just scrape out seeds and plant into seed raising medium and whammo lots of babies. I am going to wait till mid November this year before I plant out. I had a lot of luck using seeds from supermarket varieties last year – very bountiful (I had one plant that had hundreds, if not thousands, of blooms that never progressed – I can only assume it’s genetic manipulation). My favourite one that needs no staking is KY1 – just a brilliant low maintenance producer. I tried College Challenger, swift and tutura dwarf – grew from seeds but got nothing. Back to basics – KY1, cherry tomatoes and apollo II – the rest I have gathered from sprouts in my garden bed (and now at about 3cm), that will be a ‘lucky dip’. ‘Viva la tomato!’

    • We planted ours in Heidelberg on 4th October. They’ve been growing really fast and are now about 50cm tall. We used our chicken’s manure for making the beds and, a week or two later, added blood and bone. Our amish paste and tigerella varieties are growing the fastest.

  10. What a brilliant site + message board! You’ve answered so many of my concerns about tomatoes; dare I say given me confidence I’ll avoid the dreaded blossom end rot this year.

  11. 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

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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

  16. 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?

  17. 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.

      Jim.

      • I would just like to confirm that later that year I went on with my trials. This is what I experienced for Melbourne weather that is not far from the coastal regions. All of these are heirlooms. The context is full sun, with ample amounts of water applied. All plants had rotted cow manure, fish meal, and pot ash applied around the same rate.

        1. Tommy Toe. It is indeed the most versatile tomato and, for a cherry variety, they are on the bigger size. If I had to grow only one variety of tomato, it would probably be this one. The plant has high disease resistance, massive cherry fruit and very good yields. It has yet to fail me. It’s about approaching 10 feet tall + now as we approach the warm / humid seasons of late summer. Number 1.

        2. Camp Joy. If you prefer a sweet tasting cherry tomato that is slightly behind the Tommy Toe in production and disease resistance, than this is a nice alternative cherry tomato. Its sweeter taste profile makes it worth growing over the Tommy Toe, which is more on the acidic type tangy profile. Once again, this one is the same size as the Tommy Toe but doesn’t have the same disease resistance. Better taste, but falls in the other categories which puts it at number 2.

        3. Grosse Lisse. Very solid producing tomato. The flavour is not as good as the cherries I just mentioned but the size makes up for that and the yields are very good. It has more juice than I would like. Advertised as Australia’s favourite and I can see why. It did not seem to make a large plant and there was not much pruning to be done which was out of place compared to my other tomato plants. The yields are too good to not recommend this one. Comes in at number 3.

        4. Black Krim, I was very surprised with this variety. Even grown in full Australian high UV index sun, it was able to produce a decent amount of medium sized fruit. It ripened the quickest in comparison to other beefsteak varieties, even the Grosse Lisse. A lot of the fruit was able to form, I would say about 70% of the fruit formed. Once the tomatoes ripened, I took them in for a taste test and thought they were decent, but nowhere near as good as the beefsteak I will mention next. They are a smoky type flavour and I believe all of the purple varieties are similar. I would recommend this plant if you are interested in these darker smoky red purple type tomatoes. Number 4. Great paired with Grosse Lisse as a main beefsteak.

        PS: I grew this one in a test with the Cherokee Purple, which is a similar variety. The Cherokee Purple was the only tomato that did not want to grow in my soil. I tried 3 times. The first one got destroyed at the root level by ants, so I planted it deeper, and the second one did just not grow at all I think.

        5. Beefsteak, that is the name of the variety. Very similar results to last year; produces a vigorous plant but the flowers seem to fall off a lot in full sun. I would say about 35% of the fruits formed, and therefore is not really worth the effort for me. While the yields and success rate are on the lower side, it is a classic and earthy tasting beefsteak that has exceptional flavour. Its my favourite tasting beefsteak, but the success rate is poor.

        Lastly, I have Pink Brandywine growing which was started later and is planted right near my fence. So far, I can see the fruit just coming in but it does not look the best as I can see a lot of brown spots on such young fruit. I will keep you updated at the very of the season if it comes through.

        Happy gardening!

  18. 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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