Sustainable Organic Gardening

Home grown tomatoes

It is very early spring here, not by the calendar but instead by the blossoming of the stone fruit. I know there is a risk of a late frost, so it is still too early to plant out tomato seedlings into the garden. Instead I’m starting them from seed, using my reliable old bottom-heat propagator. If you don’t have a heated propagator then the top of a hot water system will work or just a warm, sheltered spot on a veranda with a cover to keep in warmth.

Seed raising mix prepared

Tomato seeds sown

Tomatoes in heated propagator

Tomato seedlings

I use a good quality seed raising mix to avoid problems with soil-borne diseases, as tomatoes are so susceptible. It helps to get the watering just right; as when the soil is kept wet, it stays too cold and the seed will just rot. I usually water the mix before sowing, water again with a fine mister after sowing and then put a mini propagator lid on to keep the warmth and moisture in. I don’t need to water again until the seeds are up. The other problem with over-watering is as seeds come to life from their dormant state, they need to take a deep breath and start the process of respiration. A soil that is very moist has no space left for air, so it is easy to drown your seeds before they reach the surface and send out leaves. Seed raising mixes are designed for good aeration, so are usually light in texture. This is one of the reasons using actual soil for seed raising is not as successful as a seed raising mix.

Starting early is crucial if I want to harvest tomatoes by the bucket load, enough for bottling and chutney making. Tomatoes really dislike the sort of humid conditions we experience from January onwards in south-east Queensland so it is best to have the main crop in early and harvested by Christmas. Usually for later harvests for salad or salsa I just plant a few cherry or egg tomatoes that are better able to cope. The bigger tomatoes just suffer too much in the wet season: the skin splits, pests are too abundant and they go to mush. This year I’m planting Tropic, Black Russian and Moneymaker. These are all medium-sized and pretty good at coping with our conditions. Black Russian tomatoes have a wonderful flavour, probably one of the sweeter tomatoes but with a real tomato taste.

Moneymaker tomatoes

Black Russian tomatoes

Mixed tomatoes

Garden space is a problem though this year as the winter veges have been delayed by lots of rain and very little sunshine, so are cropping later. The harvest of broccoli, cauliflower and winter greens are still going strong. So instead of planting out the tomatoes as small seedlings I will prick them out into individual jiffy pots and grow them on. Any small pot will work, including recycled yogurt tubs; just make sure the drainage holes are big enough.

To successfully grow tomatoes to an advanced seedling stage the light needs to be strong. The aim is a short, very sturdy seedling, not a tall, weak one. I can keep them in pots for at least six weeks before planting them out as long as I regularly feed them with liquid manure. Tomatoes take from three to five months from seed to fully ripe fruit, depending on cultivar. As you would expect, the bigger a tomato grows, the longer until the harvest.

I read an interesting hint about tomatoes the other day. It said to shake your tomato plants gently once or twice each week for about five seconds once flowering begins to promote. According to the National Gardening Association, shaking the tomato plant increases fruit production by more evenly distributing pollen. I will have to try that this year and see if it makes a difference.

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