Toma­toes are one of the most pop­u­lar home-grown veg­eta­bles. Jane Grif­fiths has the low­down on max­imis­ing har­vests

South African Garden and Home - - Contents - SOURCE Jane’s De­li­cious A-Z of Veg­eta­bles by Jane Grif­fiths (Sun­bird Pub­lish­ers, janes­de­li­cious­gar­

Grow your own toma­toes

The se­cret to grow­ing toma­toes is to work with na­ture and to un­der­stand what they want and how they grow.


Toma­toes come in a wide as­sort­ment of colours, shapes and sizes, from beef­steak mon­sters to tiny cherry va­ri­eties, from bright red to yel­low, green and black. Choose them ac­cord­ing to space and pref­er­ence. Toma­toes are di­vided into two groups ac­cord­ing to growth habit:

Deter­mi­nate toma­toes are bushy, grow­ing just over a me­tre tall. They pro­duce all their fruit at about the same time be­fore dy­ing back.

In­de­ter­mi­nate toma­toes have a vin­ing habit, grow­ing up to 6m high, un­less pinched back. They con­tinue grow­ing and pro­duc­ing un­til killed by dis­ease or frost.


Toma­toes love warm weather, and in most of South Africa, are grown in sum­mer. They need a sunny lo­ca­tion and fer­tile, well-drained soil. In­cor­po­rate plenty of com­post when pre­par­ing beds. Good com­post ingredients are com­frey and al­falfa as they pro­vide a wide range of nu­tri­ents. Be­fore plant­ing, add bone­meal to the plant­ing holes. The in­creased cal­cium re­duces the chance of blos­som-end rot and prevents cut­worm dam­age.


Toma­toes grow eas­ily from seed, and in colder ar­eas, can be started in trays in­doors in a sunny north-fac­ing spot. Once the frosts are over, they can be sown in situ. Trans­plants do best if planted deeper than they were in their trays as this en­cour­ages more roots, re­sult­ing in larger, health­ier plants. In­ter­plant with ama­ranth, as­para­gus, basil, chives, gar­lic, let­tuce, marigolds and onions. Avoid plant­ing with any mem­bers of the cab­bage family or near pota­toes.


In­de­ter­mi­nate toma­toes need strong stak­ing and sup­port, such as a tall tri­pod or trel­lis. One of the eas­i­est meth­ods is to in­stall taut ver­ti­cal lines of twine about 30cm apart. An­chor th­ese firmly to the ground us­ing stakes and at­tach them to an over­head sup­port (a cross beam or an ex­ist­ing shade cloth roof, for ex­am­ple). Po­si­tion each plant next to a line, prune it to one cen­tral stem and wind it up the twine. Once it reaches the top, break off the grow­ing tip to en­cour­age fruit­ing. As it be­comes heavy with fruit, tie the stems to the

sup­port with stretchy ties. Start ty­ing about 20cm above the ground. Form a fig­ure of eight with the stem in one loop and the sup­port in the other. As the plant grows, con­tinue ty­ing at sim­i­lar in­ter­vals.

Deter­mi­nate va­ri­eties also ben­e­fit from caging or stak­ing, which lifts fruit off the ground and pro­vides sup­port. Th­ese can be made by cre­at­ing wire spi­rals or by bend­ing chicken wire or wire mesh into a cylin­der. Which­ever sys­tem you use, have it in place be­fore trans­plant­ing seedlings or sow­ing seed so you don’t dam­age the plant’s roots.


While this lim­its the growth of the plant, it en­cour­ages more fruit. It also in­creases airf low, min­imis­ing the risk of dis­ease. Ba­sic prun­ing con­sists of re­mov­ing all branches be­low the fifth or sixth branches us­ing your thumb­nail. This prevents soil from splash­ing onto the plant, re­duc­ing the spread of dis­ease. In­de­ter­mi­nate toma­toes ben­e­fit from ad­di­tional prun­ing, es­pe­cially in small gar­dens. Plants left to ram­ble with­out trim­ming take up far more room and are more prone to dis­ease. Prune by snap­ping off the suck­ers (the stems grow­ing at an an­gle be­tween the main stem and the leaf stem) be­fore they have a chance to de­velop. Leave two or three vig­or­ous ones to grow un­til stopped by snap­ping off the grow­ing tip.


Toma­toes are heavy feed­ers, and in ad­di­tion to en­rich­ing the soil be­fore plant­ing and once f low­ers start form­ing, they should be fed with or­ganic potas­sium-rich fer­tiliser. Com­frey tea and sea­weed fo­liar spray en­cour­age strong growth and pre­vent dis­ease.


Keep plants well-wa­tered dur­ing dry weather, es­pe­cially when set­ting f low­ers. Toma­toes pre­fer to have their roots wa­tered as over­head wa­ter­ing can lead to dis­ease.


Bag­ging in­di­vid­ual fruit pro­tects against in­sect and bird dam­age. The cheap­est way to do this is to pur­chase dozens of lit­tle draw-string gift bags avail­able from bulk gift stores. Tie them on as soon as the fruit be­gins form­ing. They can be reused each sea­son.

Toma­toes are sus­cep­ti­ble to var­i­ous wilts and dis­eases, many of which are caused by fungi in the soil. Pre­vent their spread by mulching well with com­post and straw, as this also keeps soil moist and smoth­ers weeds. Ro­tat­ing toma­toes to a dif­fer­ent bed each year helps pre­vent dis­ease. If you don’t have space for this, or if the soil is con­tam­i­nated, plant them in large grow bags filled with fresh soil.

Sweet ‘Sun­gold’ cherry toma­toes.

‘Big Rain­bow’ heir­loom tomato.

‘Pur­ple Per­fec­tion’

Cylin­dri­cal sup­ports are ideal for deter­mi­nate toma­toes. Se­cure stak­ing en­sures stems won’t break.

Lines of ver­ti­cal twine are good for in­de­ter­mi­nate toma­toes.

Grow­ing toma­toes in bags is a so­lu­tion if you’ve had prob­lems with soil dis­ease. To pre­vent pest at­tacks, tie muslin bags on fruit when it starts form­ing.

Suck­ers should be pruned off in­de­ter­mi­nate tomato va­ri­eties.

For a tomato sup­port, I used a rusted bi­cy­cle wheel sup­ported by a pole stuck firmly into the ground. I tied lines of evenly spaced twine to the wheel and an­chored them to fenc­ing, bent to cre­ate a wide cir­cle around the base. It looks a bit like a may­pole as the toma­toes grow up the lines of twine.

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