Succulent, aromatic and bursting with flavour: the glorious tomato in all its many wonderful guises is undoubtedly one of our favourite things to grow! Read on or watch our video for our tried-and-tested techniques that will help you to enjoy masses of beautiful, trouble-free tomatoes. And we’ll discover how a little pill can boost both the health and productivity of your plants...Yes, really!!
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Choose Varieties Wisely
Getting the most from your tomatoes begins with what variety you opt to grow. Choose wisely! It may seem obvious, but the varieties you grow need to be suited to your climate: cool-climate varieties for shorter growing seasons like mine, and hot-climate varieties for very warm regions to ensure they can still produce fruit in summer.
Some tomatoes are more susceptible to disease than others, so look out for variety descriptions that promise good resilience to diseases such as blight. You may also want to seek out varieties known to give an early harvest, heavy yields and, of course, superior flavour – or all of the above!
Perfect Tomato Growing Conditions
Tomatoes love the sunshine. A position in full sun (that means an average of at least eight hours a day) gives the best results in most areas, though if you’re in a hot climate you can get away with dappled shade.
The soil should be fertile, free-draining, and ideally shouldn’t have grown a crop from the same plant family (for instance potatoes or peppers) within the past two years. You can really help your soil along by adding plenty of organic matter in advance of planting. Quality garden compost or well-rotted manure, applied lavishly, can supply enough nutrients to last the entire season, and will help with retaining moisture – a lifesaver during the heat of summer!
Tomato plants need space – not only to reach their full potential, but to encourage a good flow of air between plants, which should help to reduce the threat of disease. In most cases this means leaving at least two feet (60cm) between plants.
Plant Tomatoes Deeply
Most plants need to be planted at the same depth they were growing at as a seedling or young plant. But not tomatoes!
Tomatoes can be planted a lot deeper because they can produce new roots anywhere along their stems. By planting deeper we can create sturdier, more resilient plants that are primed to thrive. Plant deep at every stage: when transferring seedlings into their own pots by sinking them right up to their lowest leaves, and again when planting them into their final growing positions. Don’t be afraid of dropping plants quite deeply into their planting hole – it feels counterintuitive, but you really will get superior plants because of it!
Planting deeply is one of the reasons why growbags and other shallow containers aren’t ideal – they don’t offer enough support. If you are using growbags be sure to buy bigger, well-filled bags; plant only two tomatoes per bag, not the often-recommended three; and add an extra depth of potting mix using a special planting ring or by pushing in a wide pot with the bottom cut off it.
Tomato plants naturally sprawl. It’s one of the reasons they produce roots from their stems – it enables them to draw up more moisture and nutrients wherever they touch the soil to fuel growth. But fruits left in contact with the ground soon spoil, which is why we train them up off the ground.
A sturdy stake may suffice for determinate or bush types of tomato, which don’t grow so tall. But indeterminate or vine tomatoes need to be supported along their entire length, and usually need regular tying in too. Use strong bamboo canes, string stretched taut or tall tomato cages to keep these plants fully supported.
Feeding and Watering
Watering is one area where getting it right counts! Aim for consistent moisture as plants are establishing and then, once they begin to set fruit, let the soil or potting mix just-about dry out between waterings. It’s okay for the foliage to show early signs of wilting before watering, but don’t push it too far. Inconsistent watering – seesawing between dust-dry then sodden soil – encourages water to rush into the fruits when it’s applied, causing them to split. The best time to water is in the morning, when plants are at their most receptive to moisture.
The tastiest tomatoes are gleaned from plants that have access to all the nutrients they need. Add slow-release organic fertiliser to the soil at planting time, or apply regular liquid feeds using a product specifically formulated for tomatoes. Feeding tomatoes should also avoid problems with blossom end rot, which brings us on to our next item.
Avoid Pests and Diseases
Blossom end rot is a common complaint typically caused by a lack of calcium. Eggshells are full of calcium, making them very handy for your tomato plants.
First sterilise the shells by popping them into a warm oven for 20 minutes, or microwave on full power for two minutes. Crush them up then add them in and around your planting holes. Shells take a while to break down, but you can speed this along by grinding them up to increase the surface area, or even dissolving the grounds in water to water on at planting time. Aim for about two eggshells per plant. Often, though, the simple reason behind blossom end rot is irregular watering, which makes it harder for the plants to absorb all the nutrients they need.
Blight is a far more serious threat. This disease can lay waste to an entire crop within days. Good airflow will help reduce problems, as will watering at the base of plants to avoid wetting the leaves. Many gardeners even remove the lowest leaves specifically to improve airflow and minimise splashback when watering. Laying a mulch of clean, dry organic matter such as straw can also reduce splashback. If blight is always a problem in your area then you may find you can only successfully grow tomatoes in a greenhouse or under other protection.
Mercifully we don’t suffer from tomato hornworms in the UK, but I sympathise with those of you who do, as hornworms can strip foliage with ruthless efficiency. They’re also annoyingly good at camouflage! Do what you can to pick them off as you come across them, or deal with them once and for all by heading out at night with a blacklight or UV light, which will show them up as clear as day – or rather, clearer than day!
Pick your tomatoes in the afternoon if you can. The warmth of the sun will have developed all those rich aromas, and if you’ve watered in the morning the fruits will have had time to really concentrate that flavour.
Don’t store them in the refrigerator – that’ll just kill the flavour. Keep them on the countertop and aim to eat, cook or process them within the next few days.
Using Aspirin on Tomatoes
And that little pill I mentioned at the start? It’s aspirin, which is derived from salicylic acid, a plant hormone that stimulates its immune response. Dissolve roughly 600mg of aspirin for each gallon of water then spray it on your plants. They’ll think they are under attack and will up their defences for the remainder of their lives, making them less susceptible to real attacks, including blight! Not only that, but spraying aspirin onto your tomatoes is said to improve their taste and even their vitamin C content. It will even make plants more tolerant of drought and cold. Is there anything aspirin can’t do?
And there you have it – a few tips of the tomato trade to give your crop a real boost this summer. Are you growing tomatoes this season, and if you are, what varieties have you chosen? Please let me know down below.