Your guide for how to grow tomatoes from seeds
What’s the first vegetable that comes to mind when you think of Italian food? I’ll bet you were thinking of the tomato (though strictly speaking, it’s a fruit).
There are three different types of tomatoes – and as The Hungry Gardener, I love them all. First, there are bush tomatoes, which as the name suggests have a bushy habit. This type of tomato stays small and doesn’t require staking, so it’s great for growing in pots.
Second are staking tomatoes: These produce flowers and fruit at the same time, and won’t stop growing until they eventually die off. This style of tomato generally requires staking to keep it tidy. The third type of tomato has a mix of traits from both bush and staking tomatoes. Usually the plant label or seed packet will inform you what type of tomato it is.
Here’s my guide to growing tomatoes from seeds and how to care for them to ensure fresh-tasting produce from your very own backyard.
Plant tomatoes in full sun in soil that has a pH of 5.5–6.8. The plants need a minimum of eight hours of sunlight to produce high-quality fruit. Plant seeds in seedling trays kept indoors in late winter and then plant them out into your veggie patch in late spring. Space them according to what is recommended for that variety of tomato.
When planting out, it is worth ‘sinking’ your seedlings. This means that you make the hole a little deeper than what is needed to cover the roots, enabling you to bury the lower portion of the stem in the soil as well. More roots will then form along this buried section of the stem.
Water evenly and regularly. It’s very important to water the soil, not the plant, as tomatoes hate having wet leaves and stems.
Spread an organic straw-based mulch to retain an even soil moisture.
Prior to planting out young seedlings, work compost and manure into the bed. It’s also worth growing a legume crop of broad beans or peas prior to planting tomatoes, as they are heavy feeders of nitrogen. The plants will respond well to a regular application of seaweed extract, as well as additional potash to encourage the production of flowers.
The three types of tomatoes differ in structure and the way in which they grow, and staking varieties benefit from a pruning method known as ‘pinching’. This entails removing any side growth that occurs from the leaf axil, which is the ‘V’ between the central trunk (stem) and lateral branches.
Pinching is not essential, but removing side growth on staking varieties allows you to train the tomato plant to grow vertically, and also provides greater airflow around the plant. It enables the plant to concentrate sugars and energy on producing fruit rather than more foliage.
Tomatoes are self-pollinating, so you only need one plant to produce a crop. However, sometimes due to factors such as extreme heat or too much rain, poor pollination can occur. Encourage bees to visit your veggie patch by planting bee-attracting plants, but if all else fails you may have to resort to hand-pollination.
Harvesting & storage
Pick the fruit when the skin is a solid, rich colour but the flesh is still firm. Harvest regularly to encourage more fruit to develop. Store tomatoes on the bench rather than in the fridge, as chilling affects the flavour.
If you still have unripe tomatoes on the plants at the end of summer and root pruning is ineffective, bring the fruits indoors and place a banana close by – the ethylene in bananas causes fruit to ripen (this is the reason why bananas are not welcome on boats).
3 top tips
- When staking, caging or trellising your plants, use soft cloth ties or green growing tape – wire and string can dig into the stem. It’s best to stake plants when they’re small to avoid damaging branches and roots.
- If you have green tomatoes remaining on the plant late in the season, try root pruning to encourage them to ripen. Run a knife through the soil around the root zone – this should shock the plant into ripening its fruit. Prune back foliage as well to open up the canopy of the plant and allow more sunlight to reach the fruit.
- My recommended variety is the ribbed Florentine tomato Canestrino di Lucca – it’s delicious. It’s great for sandwiches and salads and is my favourite tomato seed find from my year in Lucca.