Tomatoes

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Nov 012017
 

Tomatoes pic taken at a market in Italy by Maria Ciavarella

Who doesn’t love a tomato? Delicious home grown tomatoes are easy to grow, taste great, and you control what gets sprayed on them, if anything at all. Late October to early November is the perfect time to plant your tomato seedlings. Many different varieties are available including heritage varieties, from which you can collect your own seed to sow next season, and dwarf varieties suitable for growing in pots. Tomatoes are great for kids to grow, as they grow fast and produce lots of delicious fruit, especially cherry tomatoes. So even if you only have a balcony for a garden, you can grow delicious fresh tomatoes. You can raise tomatoes from seed or as seedlings, however to grow from seed you will need to have planted them by mid-September.

Choosing and preparing the right site

Choose a position that gets at least 5 hours or more of full sun every day, although full sun all day is preferred. Also try to choose a spot that is not too windy, or else you will have to provide some sort of windbreak. Ensure the soil is well drained and that it hasn’t had any of the tomato family (tomatoes, potatoes, chillies or eggplants) planted in it the year before.

Before planting, dig in generous amounts of cow manure, a light sprinkle of potash and a handful of lime every square metre. Alternatively, digging in mushroom compost will do the job of both manure and lime. You can even sprinkle some blood and bone down at this time. It is essential to provide well-drained soil, and raising up the bed will help to improve the drainage. If the drainage is poor you may need to construct a raised up bed, or grow your tomatoes in pots.

You need to provide sufficient calcium in the soil. Therefore, add lime to the soil, (one handful over one square metre). If your soil is already quite alkaline, then add gypsum. This is essential for healthy tomato growth (and to prevent a disease called Blossom End Rot).

Planting Guide for seeds and seedlings

Planting

It’s okay (and even beneficial as it forms more roots), to plant your tomatoes deeply, leaving only the top one or two sets of leaves above the surface. Water in with a seaweed product. Stake your tomatoes that need it at the time of planting to avoid root disturbance later on.

Most tomatoes are best grown against stakes. Check with the label to see if it requires staking and put the stake in before you plant the seedling, to avoid damaging the roots.

If you encourage the seedlings to produce a larger root system, then you will grow healthier and more prolific Tomatoes. To achieve this, plant the seedlings with the stems buried up to the first leaves, or plant the seedling on its side and cover the stem with soil. By the next day the top of the tomato will turn up the right way.

With taller growing tomatoes some sort of support will be needed, so put your stakes in now. That way you will not damage the roots of the Tomato. You can use anything as a suitable support as long as it is strong enough to support the weight of the fully grown Tomato bush, and is tall enough.

As the Tomato grows, it is best if the conditions remain constant. This means don’t let your Tomatoes dry out and start to wilt before you water them. Regular watering to maintain even soil moisture is the key to disease free plants. Diseases such as, Blossom End Rot, are caused by uneven watering and fertilising. Check the soil before watering.

Resist the urge to prune back the foliage in order to hasten ripening of the fruit. This will increase the chances of your tomato suffering sun scald, which appears as white patches near the stalk (the most exposed part of the fruit). It is the ambient temperature which ripens the tomatoes, not the sun. Indeed, there is no diminishing in flavour if you pick the tomatoes as soon as the green starts to turn to pink, and then bring them inside to ripen in a bowl (again, not on a sunny windowsill). This also solves the problem of keeping the pesky little blackbirds away from your tomatoes, which they love if the tomatoes ripen on the vine.

Mulching

Don’t mulch until late spring / early summer so the sun warms up the soil. Warm soil is what will make your tomato plants grow like mad! You must mulch your plants by late spring / early summer to avoid precious water loss. Tomatoes are one of the few plants which can tolerate mulch right up to the stalk. Indeed, when you put in the seedlings, plant them deep into the soil, right up to the lowest true leaves, and the plant will send out new roots from nodes in the stalk. This will make the plant even hardier and able to make the most of the available water.

If you’ve already put the tomatoes in, then pile the mulch up high against the stalk and it will send roots into the organic mulch. Best ones to use are pea straw or others which will break down readily (not pine bark). These have the added benefit of feeding the soil as they break down.

Watering

Never let the soil dry out, especially during flowering and fruiting stages. This could cause fruit & flower drop, blossom end rot and a stressed plant that will be more susceptible to disease. To avoid fungal problems and disease never let the soil become waterlogged, and never water the plant… only the soil. If watering overhead is unavoidable, do it in the morning to allow foliage to dry before night fall.

Obviously if it is hot and windy, then the plants will need watering more frequently. For plants grown in pots, you will need to check the watering more often. In hot conditions you may need to water the pots two or three times a day. (If water restrictions are in place you will need to use collected rainwater, or water you have saved from washing vegetables etc.)

Feeding

Tomatoes are gross feeders! Liquid feed them minimum fortnightly with a seaweed product. This helps with disease resistance, root, flowers and fruit formation. When first flowers appear, apply a handful of potash to the soil. Liquid feed regularly, use directions on pack or weekly with teas of manures, composts or worm farms. You could even add a little more potash again during fruiting stages.

Feeding the tomato plant too much when you first put it in can be counterproductive. It will grow lush green foliage, but will not set fruit until much later. It is better to water it minimally at the early stages, maybe with a pinch of sulfate of potash for each plant until the first truss of flowers appear. Then remember that tomatoes are very heavy feeders, and a liquid feed fortnightly will give great results.

Fertilise your plants as they grow. Use organic pelletised manure as this is a slow release type of fertiliser. In addition to this, regular applications of liquid fertiliser may be used. Any of the fish emulsion or seaweed products may be used, tomato food, or make your own from liquid out of a worm farm or manure ‘teas’.

Tomato Flower (Photograph by Liz Pye, http://suburbantomato.com used with permission)

Pollination

Pollination of the flowers is essential to ensure you have plenty of tomatoes. This is usually done by bees, so don’t spray chemicals that will harm bees. Try planting plants that attract bees near your tomatoes. If you don’t see any bees pollinating the flowers, and you aren’t getting any tomatoes, then you may have to pollinate the flowers yourself. This can be done using a small paintbrush or feather.

Foolproof Varieties
If you a self confessed hopeless gardener, first timer or want an easy tomato for kids to grow, choose a cherry type as they are easy-grow & easy-pick.

Growing In Pots
If you are growing tomatoes in pots, choose the largest pot possible, minimum 40cm (16″), preferably 50cm (20″). Minimum watering when plants get bigger is once a day, and on the very hot days maybe twice or three times if they are in an exposed position.

Growing From Seed

Growing tomatoes from seed is very easy. You will need a clean container with drainage eg. Seed trays, old plastic pots, old punnets, propagation seed trays, egg cartons and some sort of mix to plant the seeds in eg. Compost, potting mix, composted manure, coco peat and manure or mixes of these.

Sow the seeds in this mix and just cover with a little of the mix. Water in with a fine mist or spray. Some sort of cover is a good idea (like a sheet of glass, or a clear plastic bag or some green house fabric). This helps to keep the evaporation down so that the seeds don’t dry out during the germination process. Make sure it is warm enough for the germination process. The soil needs to be approximately 20°C for the seeds to germinate, so don’t sow them too early! Seeds may also be sown directly into the soil where they are to grow, but the soil has to be warm enough.

Companion Planting

This is surprisingly important for pest control and pollination. Plant with mustard greens or in soil that’s previously grown them to repel nematodes. For pest control plant with or near, alyssum, phacelia, daisies, lovage, dill, carrots or parsnip gone to flower. Lavender and borage will attract many pollinators while basil repels some pests, improves cropping and is perfect to have on hand to pick with tomatoes. For more information see our page on Companion Planting.

Problems

Flowers dropping off before fruit sets
Plants that have dried out or are waterlogged, not enough light, too much nitrogen (over fertilising), spraying at an incorrect rate, over use of chemicals, possums or thrips. Check the conditions first and try to identify what the problem is. Check flowers for thrips. Thrips are difficult to control, but you can try hanging sticky traps in the bushes or Tomato dust.

Poor fruit set
This is related to the above, but may also be due to pollination not occurring. If pollination is not occurring you may have to pollinate the flowers yourself.

Leaves wilting in hot weather
Plants drying out between watering. May also lead to Blossom End Rot (see below) developing. Ensure plants have access to enough water on hot days. Pots will need more frequent watering in hot weather.

White or yellowish patches on fruit and burnt patches on leaves
This is burning during very hot conditions. May also be caused by removal of leaves shading the fruit. Shade plants during very hot weather (above 40 degrees). If you have removed leaves that shade the fruit, then you will have to provide shade for the fruit.

Leaves rolled inwards
Some varieties are more subject to this condition. May be caused be hard pruning plants and over watering. Reduce the watering, otherwise there is no need to worry as the fruit production will not be affected.

Leaves with yellow, black or brown patches, eventually wilting.
Usually starts on the older leaves and travels up the plant rapidly There are various wilt diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses. Rotate crops. You should try to leave 4 years before planting Tomatoes in the same spot. Copper based sprays may be effective on plants that are not severely affected. Remove plants and dispose of. Do not compost the plants.

Mottled yellow patches on leaves and fruit
Various mosaic viruses. Tobacco mosaic virus. Practice crop hygiene and maintain healthy plants. Control sap sucking insects. If you are a smoker, wash your hands thoroughly before handling plants, as the tobacco virus is common in commercially grown tobacco.

Another possible reason for mottled fruit
The Green vegetable bug is what might be causing your tomatoes to become mottled and discoloured. They are a suck sapping insect that can be predominately green or black at adult stage. Over winter this bug will shelter in plant litter or the bark of a tree and in spring they begin egg laying. Eggs look impressive as they are clusters of 40-80 eggs in the shape of a hexagon. In particular they love Tomatoes, but may also attack potatoes, tamarillos, beans, corn and passion fruit. Fruit is still edible as they don’t pierce large holes or nest inside. As for what to do, the organic method is to handpick them off, control weeds and remove plants as soon as they have finished bearing.

White powdery patches on leaves
Powdery mildew. Try not to water the leaves and improve air circulation around the bushes. Sulphur dust or spray may be used. Chewed patches in the leaves and fruit Various caterpillars and larvae of flies and beetles. Practice crop hygiene, for caterpillars use bacterial sprays (Dipel or Success), Tomato dust and pick fruit regularly as these can breed in old rotting fruit left under the bush.

Blossom End Rot
Have your tomatoes ever developed unsightly blemishes on the bottom end (or the blossom end) of the tomato? This is called Blossom End Rot and is caused by the tomato roots not being able to access calcium from your soil. This could be because your soil is calcium deficient, but it is more likely to be due to watering practices. The soil around the roots must never be allowed to dry out completely. If it does, the calcium becomes unavailable to the plant. Without waterlogging the plant, make sure the soil remains moist.

Top 10 Tomato Tips

We want you to grow the best possible tomatoes, so this is the pick of our best tips from staff at Bulleen Art & Garden

1. Choose the right site
Choose the sunniest spot available in your garden (at least 5 hours sun a day), that is well drained and that hasn’t had any of the tomato family plants (tomatoes, potatoes, chillies or eggplants) in it the year before.

2. Prepare the site
Before planting, dig in generous amounts of cow manure, a light sprinkle of potash and a handful of lime every square metre. Alternatively, digging in mushroom compost will do the job of both manure and lime. You can even sprinkle some blood and bone down at this time.

3. Planting
It’s okay (and even beneficial as it forms more roots), to plant your tomatoes deeply, leaving only the top one or two sets of leaves above the surface. Water in with a seaweed product.

4. Staking
Stake your tomatoes that need it at the time of planting to avoid root disturbance later on.

5. Mulching
Don’t mulch until late spring / early summer so the sun warms up the soil. Warm soil is what will make your tomato plants grow like mad! You must mulch your plants by late spring / early summer to avoid precious water loss.

6. Watering
Never let the soil dry out, especially during flowering and fruiting stages. This could cause fruit & flower drop, blossom end rot and a stressed plant that will be more susceptible to disease. To avoid fungal problems and disease never let the soil become waterlogged, and never water the plant… only the soil. If watering overhead is unavoidable, do it in the morning to allow foliage to dry before night fall.

7. Feeding
Tomatoes are gross feeders! Liquid feed them minimum fortnightly with a seaweed product. This helps with disease resistance, root, flowers and fruit formation. When first flowers appear, apply a handful of potash to the soil. Liquid feed regularly, use directions on pack or weekly with teas of manures, composts or worm farms. You could even add a little more potash again during fruiting stages.

8. Foolproof Varieties
If you a self confessed hopeless gardener, first timer or want an easy tomato for kids to grow, choose a cherry type as they are easy-grow & easy-pick.

9. Pots
If you are growing tomatoes in pots, choose the largest pot possible, minimum 40cm (16″), preferably 50cm (20″). Minimum watering when plants get bigger is once a day, and on the very hot days maybe twice or three times if they are in an exposed position.

10. Companions
This is surprisingly important for pest control and pollination. Plant with mustard greens or in soil that’s previously grown them to repel nematodes. For pest control plant with or near, alyssum, phacelia, Queen Annes lace, daisies, lovage, dill, carrots or parsnip gone to flower. Lavender and borage will attract many pollinators while basil repels some pests, improves cropping and is perfect to have on hand to pick with tomatoes.

Photographs
Tomatoes pic taken at a market in Italy by Maria Ciavarella
Tomato Flower photograph by Liz Pye. (Used with permission)
Liz runs a wonderful produce gardening blog at http://suburbantomato.com/… head there and get inspired!

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