Choosing and Starting Tomatoes

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Tomatoes

Colourful, aromatic, and totally delicious, the tomato is an essential crop for many vegetable gardeners, offering a high yield even in a small space and, of course, providing exceptional taste. Deciding what type and variety of tomato to grow isn’t easy however, particularly when you consider that there are literally thousands to try!

Deciding What To Grow

There are four main factors to consider when choosing tomatoes:

Your local climate

The first thing to consider is the length of your growing season.

Gardeners in cooler climates should opt for cool-climate tomatoes. Because these varieties mature earlier they are more likely to produce a crop even in short growing seasons. Late maturing or heat-loving varieties will need to be grown in a greenhouse or tunnel where the extra warmth will have the effect of extending the season.

On the other hand, if your summers are very hot it's worth taking a look at some of the more modern varieties with improved heat tolerance. These ‘heat-set’ or ‘hot-set’ tomatoes can set fruits at temperatures far higher than traditional varieties can. Many heat-set tomatoes will also grow well in cooler weather.

Disease resistance

Like many fruits and vegetables, tomatoes can succumb to a number of diseases over the growing season. Take preventative action by selecting varieties that are resistant to commonly occurring diseases in your area, and ensuring the right growing conditions.

In temperate areas late blight is the disease that every tomato grower dreads, as it strikes during periods of warm, wet weather. Caused by a fungus (Phytophthora infestans), blight can destroy plants in as little as a week. The spores are carried up to 30 miles on the wind, so the only real way of avoiding blight is to either grow tomatoes under cover, or to select one of the new blight-resistant varieties.

Alternatively, grow fast-maturing tomatoes, such as cherry tomatoes, which can give a harvest before the threat of blight arrives.

Which types of tomato?

Tomatoes

Tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Cherry tomatoes range from pea to cherry-sized and are the sweetest to taste, making them ideal for children.

Standard round-fruited types are high yielding, while plum, or ‘paste’ tomatoes are excellent for cooking because they contain plenty of flesh for sauce making.

Beefsteak varieties bear large and often irregular-shaped fruits. These chunky, quirky fruits have an outstanding taste and texture that’s ideal for tomato salads. Other tomato varieties include heart-shaped oxheart types, hollow cavity tomatoes for stuffing, and early-to-mature pear tomatoes.

There is a rainbow of colours to choose from: classic blood red, sunny yellow, antioxidant-packed purple or black, striped – the choice is yours!

Our Garden Planner can help you to choose the best varieties for your garden. Simply double-click tomatoes on the selection bar to bring up the varieties box, and scroll through the drop-down list to select a variety. Or, click the plus button and hover over the ‘i’ Information buttons for catalogue descriptions. You can also add your own variety complete with customised spacing or dates.

Growing habit

Tomatoes are either determinate – which means they grow to a predetermined height – or indeterminate, where the main stem keeps on growing.

Determinate, or ‘bush’ tomatoes produce stout, bushy plants about three feet tall. The tomatoes ripen within a few weeks of each other, so are great for making sauces for freezing. Bush tomatoes require some support such as a stake and will grow well in containers.

Indeterminates, also known as vining or cordon tomatoes, produce fruits along a stem. Fruit production is staggered over the summer, giving a steady crop. Vine tomatoes often grow up to head height so they require tall supports such as bamboo canes or tomato cages.

Tumbling tomatoes offer a compact alternative for hanging baskets and tubs – perfect for those with a small garden or a balcony.

Sowing Tomatoes

Pricking out tomato seedlings

Sow tomatoes six to eight weeks before planting, working back from your last frost date, or use our Garden Planner which will recommend ideal sowing dates for your area. Sow the seeds individually into pots or trays of damp seed-starting mix. Cover them over with a fine layer of potting soil, water carefully, then place the pot into a propagator or secure a clear plastic bag over the top of the pot to create a humid microclimate. Keep the pot in a warm location out of direct sunlight. A temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 degrees Celsius is ideal.

As soon as the seeds have germinated, move them into a bright location. Turn windowsill seedlings regularly if they start to lean towards the light. Grow lights can give an early boost and promote upright growth. See our article Starting Seeds Indoors for more tips on starting plants from seed.

Growing On

Potting on a tomato plant

Move your seedlings into their own pots as soon as they start to form their first adult leaves. Prepare potting soil-filled pots by dibbing holes ready for the seedlings. Remove the seedlings from their nursery pot then, handling them carefully by their leaves to avoid damaging the delicate stems, lower each seedling into its hole. Gently feed the roots down into the hole, and bury the seedlings right up to the first leaves to produce a much sturdier plant.

Grow your tomatoes on at about 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, or 15 to 18 degrees Celsius. Nighttime temperatures can drop a bit lower than this and will help to encourage stronger plants. If the roots fill their pots before it is time to plant them out, simply pot them on into a larger container using fresh potting soil.

Outdoor tomatoes will first need acclimatising to outside conditions to avoid cold shock. Harden them off over a period of two weeks. Begin by leaving plants outside for just a couple of hours a day then gradually increase the length of time they spend outside, avoiding windy days. Bring plants under cover if temperatures threaten to drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or 4 degrees Celsius. Plant outside only after all danger of frost has passed.

There are many, many varieties of tomato to explore – enough for a lifetime of discovery! Select varieties suitable for your location and conditions and you’ll be hooked on growing these flavoursome beauties.

Let us know what tomatoes you recommend – drop us a comment below and tell us why.

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