Growing tomatoes is great fun. I remember when as a kid my father used to start tomatoes off in the spring, and we’d watch them greedily for months. Then he’d start picking them but they’d barely get to the kitchen before we ate the lot.
They are delicious, whether raw or cooked. I particularly like cherry tomatoes, eating them is like eating sweats.
The first job in spring is deciding which variety is right for you. The choice is confusing. There are two things you need to consider... whether it is an early or late variety of tomato, and what type of tomato it is.
In Britain Blight can be a big problem, and so many gardeners decide to go for an early tomato. Because blight is spread in the air by spores over a wide area it is possible you are in a blight zone. In which case, choosing a variety that ripens as quickly as possible, growing the tomato in compost rather than the soil, and keeping the tomato in a greenhouse or polytunnel all help.
A main crop tomato can take around 90 days from sowing to the first harvest. Early tomatoes are a little faster, and can be planted out a little earlier since they are hardier. So they are more likely to ripen before blight season starts.
The other main decision is on what type of plant you select.
Cherry tomatoes are the most delicious tomato variety in my opinion. They are around 1 inch wide, and ripen quickly. You can eat a tomato in one. The taste is really strong, concentrated compared to other tomatoes.
Plum tomatoes are named after their shape. They do look a little like a plum, have a decent size about them, but are not as large as beefsteak tomatoes. They are great in salads, and are easy to look after.
This variety of tomato is often very large. They are nice to eat, although they often don’t have the same flavour as Cherry Tomatoes.
Steps for Tomato Growing
1. Select seed
In general I think it is best to buy tomato seed every year. Many varieties of tomatoes available in the shops do not come true. So although you could in theory save the seed, you are not likely to get the same result every year.
2. Fill pot with compost
I think it is best to choose seedling compost. Some people intentionally put a handful of solid from their garden into the compost a week before. The theory is that the natural bacteria and mitochondria in the garden will develop in the compost, so preventing a shock when you plant it out. I don’t really believe the theory, but it is interesting. I would avoid this technique if you are in a blight area.
3. Dampen potting compost from below
Use a tray, and warm water. It is best not to get the pot swimming in water. If you use warm water – about the same temperature as a baby’s bottle – you will find that it speeds up germination.
4. Sow seed – be careful.
It is quite a fine seed. Some people fold a piece of card, and put a few seeds on the card at a time, tapping the card so only one seed drops on the soil at a time. Of course, some people just do it by hand.
5. Place in dark until see shoot
This is often recommended, although I don’t really find it necessary... I have planted them before and they do pretty well wherever, as long as they are kept at a comfortable temperature.
6. Put on window, or in cold frame or heated greenhouse
Once they have germinated, they need warmth, water and light to grow. A heated greenhouse, cold frame, or your window is great. In fact, if it doesn’t get below 5 degrees centigrade at night, an unheated greenhouse is fine too.
7. Make sure to regularly turn the seedling
If you keep the seed indoors, make sure you turn the seedling regularly to prevent it bending towards the light. Make sure there is a reasonable amount of light too. If the plant doesn’t get enough light it will try to grow towards the sun too much, and may become leggy.
8. Harden off when the seedling gets larger
Once you have a decent sized seedling, start putting it outside for the daylight hours. After a week or so, it should be used to it, so you can then plant it out.
9. Water a little but often
Make sure you don’t let the plant get thirsty, and don’t swamp it with water either. This is particularly important when the plant has fruit on it, since they can split if not watered regularly.
10. Plant outside, or in grow bags or containers in greenhouse
The choice of whether to plant outside or in a container is simple in a blight area – you grow it in a container. Otherwise, growing it outside in the ground tends to make for a really delicious tomato but at the risk that it will suffer from pests. Tomatoes in a greenhouse are less likely to suffer from early frosts.
Use a tomato feed as recommended on the label. Tomatoe plants are very hungry.
How to prune a tomato is an entire new article in its own right, so I will discuss it latter!
It often takes 90 days from sowing before you get the first harvest. When the tomato is full sized you can either pick individual ripe fruit. Or simply cut an entire vine away and store that. People often worry about ripening the green fruits. It is easy, put them on a sunny windowsill in a open shoe box with an banana and some apples.
The banana lets off a gas that makes the fruit ripen quickly.
When you prune, water or harvest the tomato make sure to wear gloves, as the tomato plant has hairs that can irritate some people’s skin.
14. Compost the plant
Unless the plant is infected with a disease, composting the plant is the last stage of the growing life cycle.
I hope this article helps you when you decide to grow tomato plants for yourself. It is exciting and fun to watch them ripen... although you often don’t get as far as the kitchen with them!