Let me tell you something that not many people know about me, my favourite smell in the world is not fresh baked bread, freshly brewed coffee or lavender (though these rate pretty highly) but the the smell of tomato plants. It is the ultimate smell of summer. My earliest memories of anyone growing their own food are those of my father growing tomatoes in our back garden at home. Each summer, he would plant a few tomatoes in pots in our garden and I loved to watch them progress throughout the summer. The smell of tomato plants reminds me of home, it is nostalgic and gorgeous and comforting.
Most people think you need a greenhouse or polytunnel in which to grow tomatoes, and while this does help, tomatoes will grow relatively well outdoors in Ireland, provided we have a good summer. Tomatoes are excellent container plants and as such are a good choice for the gardener with limited growing space.
Being July, it is too late now to sow tomatoes, however if you have started them, I have some tips for caring for your tomatoes during the summer months.
There are two main types of tomatoes, indeterminate (vine or cordon tomatoes) and determinate (bush tomatoes). The type of plant you are growing will determine how to care for it through the growing season.
Fun Fact: Tomatoes are a member of the Solanaceae family of plants, making them a cousin of the potato, aubergine, tobacco and deadly nightshade plants.
I usually sow my tomatoes in late March or early April. (Confession: I didn’t sow any this year, my Dad is solely responsible for 2016’s tomato crop).
Sow tomatoes in individual 9cm pots using good quality seed compost, level and firm the compost before sowing and water them in well. A heated propagator comes in quite handy for germinating tomatoes in our climate but if you don’t have one, you can keep them on a windowsill above a radiator or in full sun. Covering your pots with cling film or plastic also gives the soil some warmth to help germinate your tomato seeds. Tomatoes usually germinate within seven days.
One common issue I’ve had with tomato seedlings is their tendancy to become “leggy”. Now, being a leggy individual myself, I’m fully aware of how much of an advantage this is as a human female, but leggy tomato plants are not so desirable. The stems grow really tall at the expense of fruit development. This is usually caused by the seedlings reaching toward the available light which is often in short supply in Spring. It helps to rotate the pots once a day or to move the pots to a brighter location, sometimes I have found this means moving the pot from the front of my house to the rear of my house as the sun moves across the sky during the day.
Tomato plants are very clever though, they will form new roots at the point where the stem hits the soil so if your seedlings do become leggy, plant them into a larger pot with the stem buried deeper so they can form new roots. Amazing!
Tomatoes are another one of those plants that need to be potted on regularly in order to thrive. You’ll need to transfer your seedlings into larger pots after about three weeks so they have new nutrients and have space for their roots to spread out.
Tomatoes in Containers
I’m quite lucky as I have a polytunnel and I can just plant my tomatoes directly into the ground, but tomatoes make excellent container crops in smaller spaces. Tomatoes have a rather large root structure so need room to spread out so if you are growing in pots, use a large pot for each plant, you’ll want a pot of at least 12 inches.
You can also buy grow bags for tomatoes. These are like large bags of compost in which you can grow up to three tomato plants and are a really good choice for the novice tomato grower with limited space.
Keep your tomatoes in a warm spot with plenty of sun, a south facing garden or balcony is preferable.
Sometimes, we all need someone to lean on and tomatoes too need support as they grow. Tomatoes can grow quite tall and they become laden down with fruits in the summer which often causes the plant to topple over. Stake your tomatoes using bamboo and tie them in as they get larger
Watering and Feeding
Tomatoes need plenty of water in order to bulk up and prevent the tomatoes from splitting. I water my plants a little every day in summer months and give them a really good soaking once a week. Tomatoes need a regular water supply to prevent problems with the ripening fruit.
When growing in containers, you can use an upturned water bottle buried halfway in to the soil to direct water to the roots of your plants. There is no need to water the tops of the plants (this actually goes for most veggies) aim your water at the base of the plant.
Tomatoes grown in containers will probably need to be fed also, use an organic tomato feed once a week when the fruits are ripening, or better yet, make your own plant feed with nettles or comfrey.
Tomato plants form what we call trusses. A truss is a group of smaller stems which produce flowers and fruit.
When growing vine tomatoes, pinch out the side shoots (these grow between the leaves and main stem). This allows the plant to put all its energy into the trusses, this producing more fruit.
It also helps to pinch out the main growing stem on tomatoes once they are bearing fruit, this will encourage the tomatoes to ripen and subsequent fruits formed above these trusses will often fail to ripen anyway.
Tomatoes are prone to a few diseases, much like their cousins, the potato, tomatoes can suffer from blight in poor conditions, keep an eye out for rotting leaves and brown patches on the fruit.
Blossom end rot is caused by calcium deficiency and is usually indicative of irregular watering. Tomatoes can also be prone to fruits splitting and cracking if they are not watered.
However, I have been super lucky with growing tomatoes and haven’t experienced any major problem with the exception of the the fruit splitting due to lack of water, bad Fiona!
Harvesting tomatoes is pretty easy, follow these steps:
- Pick tomatoes.
- Eat whole like apples.
- Pat self on back for job well done.
- Never buy tomatoes in a supermarket again.
This year I’m growing a variety called Moneymaker, a reliable cropper much loved by gardeners. Sungold are a spectacular cherry tomato and if you’d like to be a bit more adventurous, Tigerella are the tiger-striped, glam-rock icons of the veggie garden.
It’s unusually hot here in Dublin this week, the temperature outside today is 28 degrees celcius and my tomatoes are currently sweating it out in a closed polytunnel. Panic stations! I’ll have to swing by after work lest I end up with tomatoes that are as sunburnt as my thighs.
Tomato toned thighs, not a good look. Truss me.