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Tomatoes (Lycopersicon lycopersicum and other tomato sp.)

Tomatoes on the vine
Green tomatoes on the vine.
Tomato plant seedlings
Transplant tomato seedling when they are 4 - 5 inches high

There are so many varieties of tomatoes that it is not unthinkable to have a whole garden comprising entirely of tomatoes. Botanically speaking tomatoes are actually a fruit and not a vegetable, and to be more precise, tomatoes are actually a berry. However, most people refer to tomatoes as vegetables, hence the reason why it appears under the home vegetable garden section. Following are a few examples of determinate or unstaked tomatoes and indeterminate or staked tomatoes. The cherry tomato, or the Lycopersicon esculentum, as it is also known has taken great strides in popularity because it makes a wonderful feature plant with its beautiful small berry like produce. Furthermore, these little cherry tomatoes are so decorative that it does not hurt to make your tomato feature plant in your garden. Very popular cherry tomato varieties are the Sweet 100, the Tiny Tim and let us not forget to mention the Cherry Belle.

There are so many tomato varieties to choose from. The Flora Dade a medium sized determinate tomato with a lovely red hue, the Pearson with its pear-shaped pinkish, fleshy fruits, the Homestead which is a small compact tomato, the Marvel of the Market which is quite a hardy tomato and resistant to many diseases, the Potentate and the MoneyMaker which are both prolific providers of tomatoes, albeit that the fruits are tinier than the other tomato varieties, the Oxheart tomato, the Beauty, and the robust Indian River tomatoes, the Roma and King Humbert tomatoes which are elongated and less fleshy, and the many cherry tomatoes varieties. And of course these days there are also purple, green and yellow tomatoes. (TIP: It is advisable to ask at your local nursery which tomato variety will do well in your specific area.)

For the home vegetable gardener it is advisable to invest in a simple frame as a support structure for tomatoes. Free standing obelisks not only make for a beautiful feature, but it also allows for easy movement of the tomato beds. As an added bonus the obelisks are quite sturdy. Twisting the tomato plant’s branches around the obelisk is easy and attachment with gardener’s plastic-coated wire is just as effortless. (TIP: Alternatively you could just make use of a strand or two of thick wire between well-supported poles.)

Nutrients in Tomatoes

Tomatoes are rich in very valuable minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. Tomatoes are also filled with vitamins C, A, E, K and B6 as well as folic acid and of course beta carotene.

Tomatoes are also rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, which helps to protect against various forms of cancer, eye cataracts and muscular degeneration. The lycopene in tomatoes also helps to lower the risk of heart disease.

And believe it or not, tomatoes are actually alkaline and not acidic.

How to grow Tomatoes

Where and when to plant your Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a summer crop and are susceptible to frost. Only sow your tomato seeds when you are sure that the danger of frost is past. Other than the frost issue, it is possible to sow tomato seeds right through the year.

Tomatoes will grow in almost any type of garden soil, but if you are interested in a high yield of good quality tomatoes for a harvest then you should consider planting your tomatoes in a well-prepared soil. This soil preparation should be completed 2 to 3 weeks before transplanting your tomato seedlings. Work into the garden soil where you intend to plant the tomato seedlings a generous amount of compost as well as a cup full of 3:1:5 fertilizer per square meter. Tomatoes are greedy feeders and it is better to amend your garden soil so that you ensure a bumper crop of tomatoes.

For the no-till home gardener it is also a good idea to plant tomatoes in garden soil where less greedy feeding vegetables such as beetroots, carrots, radish, spinach, celery, endive or lettuce was grown in the previous season.

How to sow your Tomato seeds

It is recommended that tomato seeds are sown in seedbeds first. First wet the seedbeds to ensure that the garden soil in the intended seedbed in moist when the seeds are sown.

The tomato seeds should be sown about a thumb’s width apart and approximately as deep as the nail on your index finger.

Sow the tomato seeds in furrows that are approximately a hand width apart.

Transplanting the tomato seedlings

About 30 days after sowing you may proceed to transplant your successfully germinated tomato seedlings.

At this stage you tomato seedling should be approximately 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12 cm) high and have about 4 sets of leaves.

Water the seedbeds at this stage (that is before transplanting the tomato seedlings) to ensure that the garden soil is moist when the seedlings are removed.

Use a trowel to dig out the tomato seedlings. Take care to leave as much soil as possible left clinging to the roots.

Discard all tomato seedlings that show signs of distress or disease. Check for nematode infestation.

Plant the tomato seedlings 36 inches (90 cm) apart in rows that are 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60 cm) apart.

Plant the tomato seedlings relatively deeply into to garden bed so that only the top two sets of leaves are above the ground. Remove the lower two sets of tomato seedling leaves carefully.

Water the tomato seedlings immediately after transplanting.

Try to keep the transplantation time to tomato seedlings restricted to the afternoons when it is cooler.

Taking care of your Tomatoes

Protect your tomato plants against frost.

Watch out for garden pests such as white fly and fungal infections that may attack your tomato plants.

Do not allow the fruits of the tomato plant to lie on the ground. It will rot.

Do apply fertilizer to your tomatoes regularly for at least 12 to 15 weeks. This regular fertilization can be LAN and 3:1:5 (38) every fortnight. Do interchange the fertilizers every time – say you make use of LAN the first fortnight then use 3:1:3 (38) the next time around.

Staking of tomatoes is an important step when growing indeterminate tomato varieties. (See the pruning section below.)

Although tomato plants have a strong root system, water it well. Whatever you do, try NOT to water your tomato plants with a sprinkler system. Always avoid wetting the tomato plant leaves. When the weather is cool you may water your tomato plants every 7 to 10 days. In hotter areas you should water your tomato plants every 4 to 5 days. Also bear in mind that the type of garden soil, whether it is clayey, sandy or loamy, will also have in influence on how often you need to water your tomato plants.

Once your tomato plants have established themselves, after transplanting, you should be on the lookout for weeds that might want to grow in the tomato beds. Dig out the weeds carefully – preferably do your weeding by hand to avoid damaging the tomato plant roots.

It is possible to grow tomatoes on supports provided that they are pruned down to a single stem. In this way your tomatoes will not only look neater, but it will also be suitable to be grown in containers. Tomatoes staked for support in containers also makes for easier spraying if necessary. (TIP: This is a handy practice when growing the tall variety tomato of which the cherry tomato (indeterminate or staked) and Hotstuff are good examples.)

Do regular pruning of your tomato plants to ensure a bumper crop. See the section on pruning.

Feeding of the tomatoes must occur as soon as the first fruits have formed. Tomatoes should be fed by the application of compost around the tomato plant. Take care not to have the compost touch the tomato plant stem.

Tomatoes will respond well to mulching. Use leaves, hay, old peat and even sawdust or bark chips as mulch and cover the garden soil surface.

Pruning Tomatoes

Tomatoes should be pruned about once a week. Pruning of tomatoes are only applicable to the tall growing, indeterminate, staked tomato varieties. It is recommended that all home vegetable gardeners choose to cultivate these tomatoes as they provide so many more advantages such as a higher yield, a longer harvesting period, and – very valuable for the home vegetable gardener – more value per area of space occupied. All indeterminate, staked tomato varieties can be trained up to grow on various structures using polypropylene strings. You can even have these tomatoes hanging down these strings from eaves of buildings or frames.

The easiest way to stake tomato plants is to push a sharpened stick (preferably about 4 - 5 ft (120 - 150 cm long) into the garden soil nest to each tomato plant. Then tie the tomato plant with a piece of twine of string to the stick. DO not tie the tomato plant too tightly. Rather make a loop in the string so that the string is between the stick and the tomato plant.

When growing staked tomatoes do remove all the side shoots so that are is basically just one stem per plant. You can start this process when the shoots of your tomato plant is about 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 cm) long and about 12 inches (30 cm) in height. (TIP: Do not cut off the shoots with a knife or pinch out the shoots with your fingers when pruning. Rather bend then carefully up and down until they break off.) This makes for easy management of your staked tomato plant. Odd enough, growing staked tomatoes in this fashion will yield the same produce as the un-pruned plants. However, when pruned the staked tomatoes will allow for more air circulation, more light, and when spraying, more fungicide to reach all parts of your tomato plants, hence reducing the risk of disease.

Pruning tomatoes in this fashion also results in a neater appearance which looks much more attractive in any garden of any size.

When growing staked tomatoes always make sure that you protect your produce by covering the tomatoes with sections of old stockings until the tomatoes are ripe. If you do not have old stocking, brown paper bags will also do.

How to harvest your Tomato crop

Tomatoes are usually ready for harvesting approximately 4 months after sowing or about two and a half months after transplanting out the tomato seedlings. Tomatoes are harvested from the tomato plants by breaking them off just above the fruit.

Increase the nutritional value and the taste of your tomatoes by having them ripen on the tomato vine itself. However, if you need to harvest before your tomatoes are properly ripe (in case some garden pests might spoil your harvest), then you may do so. When you harvest the green (there are some tomato varieties that are green when ripe) or rather unripe tomatoes you do not have to put the tomatoes in the sun to ripen.

After you have harvested the last tomatoes from your tomato plants you should remove the plants from the garden soil with its roots. Do this by lifting the plants up with a garden fork. Any of your tomato plants that show signs of disease should be destroyed. If the plants are not diseased then place them on your compost heap.

Troubleshooting Tomato, crop failure and growing pains

Tomatoes are not producing enough and growth is stunted

This can be a result of eelworm infestation. Eelworms are microscopic nematodes that enter the root systems of your tomato plants that are susceptible to eelworm infestation. These eelworms develop giant cells which will disrupt the root growth and its functions. This result in your tomatoes having stunted growth and in some cases even killing the tomato plants. In the mean time the pest builds up to incontrollable levels. Purchase seedlings or seeds of a tomato variety that is known to be eelworm resistant and grow and cultivate them instead.

Tomatoes plant life span is too short to produce tomatoes

This can be the result of diseases such as verticillium and fusarium wilts. These diseases are lurking in the garden soil. These wilts are very difficult to identify. Fortunately most of the new varieties of tomatoes are resistant to both these wilts that are present in garden soil.

Tomatoes not productive

This could be the result of you growing a tomato variety that is low on resistance to diseases. The Oxheart tomato variety has an extremely low resistance to disease and it could be that you are growing the Oxheart variety. Rather purchase a variety of tomato that is highly resistant to diseases. One such a tomato variety is the Hotstuff tomato. Hotstuff is known for its great yield in produce and excellent taste.

Tomatoes (small and medium tomato varieties) producing small fruits

This could be the result of not pruning your tomato plant. The Moneymaker tomato variety requires regular pruning else they will produce a lot of side-shoots and very small fruits. Prune your tomato plants once a week.