How to grow tomatoes – an easy beginner’s guide
- By: Ashley Saunders
- May 2020
The humble tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is one of the most used fruit in the world. It’s fairly easy to grow tomatoes which make them ideal for a vegetable patch. While most wrongly identify it as a vegetable, it is, in fact, a fruit as it has seeds inside.
We use tomatoes in sauces, soups, salads and on burgers. They are a superb source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K.
Also, they are high in the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. So it’s worth trying to grow tomatoes in your veg patch if only for the health benefits.
Tomatoes come in a variety of colours, including yellow, orange, green, and purple. What’s more, many subspecies of tomatoes exist with different shapes and flavour. Here’s how to grow tomatoes.
Interesting tomatoes facts!
The first tomatoes in Europe were yellow varieties, the Italian for tomato is Pomodoro, which translates as golden apple.
There are over 10,000 varieties of tomato, these come in a variety of colours including pink, purple, black, yellow and white.
The biggest tomato fight in the world happens each year in the small Spanish town of Buñol. The festival called La Tomatina, involves some 40,000 people throwing 150,000 tomatoes at each other.
Steve Marley currently holds the Guinness World Record for the heaviest tomato, which weights 4.377Kg and was picked in September 2019.
It’s thought that tomatoes originally came from Peru.
Tomatoes are used to clean toilet bowls, as an ingredient in beauty products, and to polish brass and copper.
Tomatoes aren’t very picky about soil but they do prefer a slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6.2 to 6.8. However, they do need soil that drains well.
In terms of the ideal conditions, you want to grow tomatoes in area with full sun which provides at least 6 hours of daily sun.
A week or two before planting either seeds or young plants, it’s worth covering the soil with around 5 cm of aged manure or compost and then letting it rot into the ground.
With thousands of tomatoes varieties of all shapes and sizes from tiny grape-sized to giant beefsteaks, it can be hard to know which to grow.
Tomatoes can be classified according to their growth habit:
- Determinate tomatoes are plants that grow to pre-determined height. Fantastic for canning and sauce-making.
- Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow in height throughout the season because the terminal of the stem continues to produce foliar growth rather than set flowers. They continually produce fruits through the season along. Indeterminate tomatoes are the choice if you want to spread out the harvest over a longer period of time.
If you’re looking to grow tomatoes and don’t know where to start, the RHS recommends the following varieties:
Suitable for hanging baskets or pots, this bush (determinate) cultivar is hard to beat outdoors.
If you’re after small, flavoursome tomatoes, try this reliable and heavy cropping cultivar. A cordon (indeterminate) type. Good in growing bags or pots.
A trailing tomato that can be grown in hanging baskets. A small bush (determinate) cultivar.
A beefsteak tomato with flavoursome, large red fruits and some resistance to tomato/potato blight. A cordon (indeterminate) type. Good in growing bags or pots.
Sweet Million AGM
Producing masses of small, sweet, cherry-sized, bright red fruits, sweet Million grows well in growing bags and pots. They’re ideal if you are short on space.
There two options to grow tomatoes, you can start either with seeds or seedlings.
If starting outdoors, you can sow seeds from late March. You can sow earlier in a greenhouse with conditions being ideal from late February.
Sow in small pots indoors, using a propagator or place the pots in a plastic bag and keep on the windowsill. The young seedlings need to be kept at around 18°C. When two true leaves have formed, then you’ll need to transplant them into 9cm pots.
If you don’t have the space to raise tomato seedlings and don’t fancy starting from seeds outdoor, then your local garden centre will sell young plants. However, they will still require frost-free conditions and hardening off before planting outside.
Can you grow tomatoes in pots?
You can grow tomatoes in large pots or containers as long as they have sufficient drainage. Use loose, well-draining soil and only plant one tomato plant per pot. Ideally, you would grow dwarf varieties as they don’t require staking.
Place your pot(s) in a sunny spot which gets around 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day. As container will dry out quicker than garden soil, you need to keep adding moisture to ensure the soil stays moist.
How to nurture tomatoes
When the flowers of the first truss start opening, transfer to growing bags or plant outside leaving around 45 cm to 60 cm between plants.
During the first few days after transplanting, you will need to water generously. Then continue to add about 6 cm of water per week throughout the growing season.
The ideal time to water is in the early morning as this supply enough moisture for the plant to make it through a hot day. It’s best to avoid watering late afternoon or in the evening. Regular watering is important as fluctuating moisture levels can cause the fruit to split.
Around 4 weeks after transplanting add around 10 cm of organic mulch (such as straw, hay, or bark chips) on top of the soil. This will help to keep weeds under control and retain moisture.
Every 10-14 days feed your plants with a balanced liquid fertiliser. Once the first fruits start to show change to a high potash fertiliser. If you don’t regularly water and your soil lacks calcium, then your plants are more likely to develop blossom end rot.
Ideally, you’d leave your tomatoes on the vine as long as possible. With any that fall off before they fully ripen, simply place them stem up in a paper bag and store in a cool, dark place.
Don’t try to ripen tomatoes on a sunny windowsill as they will probably rot before they have the chance to become rip.
When your tomatoes are firm and very red (or the correct colour for that variety), then they’re ready to be picked. It fine to pick if you have some yellow remaining around the stem.
If you still have fruit on your tomato plant after the first frost, then pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down in your garage. You can pick the tomatoes as they ripen.
How to store fresh tomatoes
Once you’ve harvested your tomatoes, you need to store them somewhere cold and dark such as a pantry. Any exposure to sunlight will cause them to continue to ripen and therefore reduce their usable life.
That said, you should never refrigerate fresh tomatoes as doing so will spoil the flavour and texture. You can freeze whole tomatoes by placing them in a freezer bag or plastic container first. When you defrost them, the skins will slip off.
Common pests and problems
When trying to grow tomatoes, you’ll need to protect your crop from pests and disease. Here are the most issues you’ll face.
Blossom end rot
If you notice dark blotches appearing at the ends, then your crop is infected with blossom end rot. You need to keep watering regularly and never allow the soil to dry out.
This disease causes fruit and foliage to rot and most common in wet weather. You can avoid blight by planting resistant cultivars.
Tomato leaf mould
Rarely seen on outdoor crops, leaf mould can develop rapidly to cause significant yield loss in greenhouse-grown tomatoes. You’ll see yellow blotches develop on the upper leaf surface and a pale, greyish-brown mould on the underside.
To avoid leaf mould, use resistant cultivars and provide ample ventilation to indoor tomato crops.
Tomato splitting and cracking
Thankfully, this doesn’t affect the taste of the tomato, but split fruit left on the plant will often be infected by a fungus, such as grey mould and can cause a variety of physiological disorders.
To remedy, you should control temperature and sunlight levels carefully. You’ll need to feed regularly to maintain high soil fertility and continue watering so that constant level of soil moisture is maintained.
You’ll also need to be careful of insect and pests including Aphids, Flea Beetles and Whiteflies. So you need to be vigilant when you grow tomatoes in your vegetable patch.
That’s how to grow tomatoes!
Now you can successfully grow tomatoes, it’s worth trying to expand your veg patch and giving them a chance! We’d recommend growing raddishes, cabbage and turnips. All are staples that can be used in numerous dishes.