THERE is just nothing to beat tomatoes in terms of taste, variety and satisfaction. In addition to this, they feature in just about every kind of cuisine, besides being a staple in salads and sandwiches.
Tomatoes are easy to grow but they need more care than a lot of vegetables. Any sign of insect activity or disease affecting tomatoes needs to be dealt with immediately, otherwise the harvest is affected. Indeterminate varieties need pinching and staking and even determinate varieties can be staked if space is limited. Besides that, however, no pampering is required.
This basic guide for growing tomatoes includes some specific, very helpful tips:
Unlike other vegetables, tomatoes can be grown in the same place year after year, except if last season’s plants were diseased. Tomatoes like a soil which has lime or high calcium, otherwise the fruit itself may split. It’s also recommended that you add agricultural lime before planting into your beds. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and lots of compost should be dug into the soil. Raised or mounded beds improve drainage and aeration.
Site and spacing
Tomatoes grow into substantial plants and should be spaced at least 60 to 80cm apart. Rows should be about 100cm apart. They do best in positions that get full morning sun and afternoon shade. They can take more sun if there is good air movement, otherwise they become susceptible to red spider mite.
Plant tomatoes “deeply”. When transplanting out of a smaller pot or from a seed tray, position the plant in the ground so that the lowest set of leaves is at soil level and press the soil down gently – this produces a sturdy plant. Planting deeply is particularly important if you plant tomatoes in pots – if the plant is not set deep enough, the roots seem to push themselves out of the potting soil.
To avoid a glut of tomatoes, do two plantings with an eight-week gap in-between the first and the second. Two healthy tomato plants should meet the needs of a family of four. By planting two plants at the beginning of the season and two plants eight weeks later you should have tomatoes right up until winter. Of course, you may want to grow one or two extra plants in case something goes wrong; you can always freeze the surplus (for later use in sauces, juice, pastes or purées) if all goes well. A suggestion for sowing seeds – do not plant all the seed at the same time or you will have to harvest them all at the same time. Rather spread your planting over a couple of weeks to ensure fresh harvesting direct from the vine.
Tomatoes don’t like water on their leaves; it can lead to fungus diseases such as early or late blight, so watering by flooding around the plant is best. Create a “dam” around each plant and mulch deeply to retain the water. Regular, deep watering is best and when the plant starts to flower make sure the soil remains consistently moist. Mulching is essential for retaining water and it keeps the roots cool as well.
If good compost is added to the soil before planting, then fertilising only becomes necessary when the plant starts flowering and fruiting. We would recommend feeding every four weeks with a fertiliser high in potassium, or 8:1:5 granular fertiliser.
Unfortunately, whitefly, aphids, American bollworm and red spider mite are all attracted to tomatoes. The most destructive is American bollworm because the larvae burrow into the fruit, causing it to rot from inside. Their presence can be detected by the holes they make in the tomatoes. One needs to identify the pest or problem and then spray the correct insecticide for the correct pest. Visit your local garden centre for advice on what product/s to use for the type of infestation that has been properly identified.
Fungal disease can be prevented by watering carefully and making sure that the position in which your tomatoes grow has good air circulation. Long periods of rain, however, create ideal conditions for fungal disease. If you want to use a fungicide then it’s a good idea to go to your local garden centre for a recommendation as to what works best in the area. At the end of the season, burn any fungus-infected plants that you are discarding – never add to a compost heap.
Pick tomatoes when they are just beginning to change from orange to red. The longer you leave the fruit on, the more it stresses the plant. By picking at this stage you also extend the harvest period. Let the tomatoes finish ripening at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. Don’t store them in your refrigerator because the cold temperature will cause them to lose flavour and texture.