The vegetable that is actually a delicious savory fruit, and a member of the nightshade family, originates from South America where it has been cultivated by the Aztecs since the 8th century. Historians believe that the Spanish Conquistador, Cortez brought the tomato back to Europe in the 16th century and the plant has gone global ever since. There is nothing better than eating a home-grown fresh-off-the-vine tomato. The fruit is rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, protein, potassium and much more. You do not have to have a huge garden to grow tomatoes. The fruit can be grown indoors or outdoors, from a single plant in a pot to a cultivated bed, the plant is relatively easy to grow at little cost.
It all starts with the seeds and selecting your variety. Southern States has a wide range of good quality seed and varieties including cherry, regular and beefsteak. All will have different characteristics in terms of size, taste, and color and will be ready for eating usually between 65-80 days. If you start with a good quality seed stock this means that you should be on pole position on the growing track from day one. Each variety will have its own particular growing instructions on the packet. However, there are some tips that will generally apply across the board.
Soaking, to get a head start on germination you may consider soaking your seeds. Do not do this for longer than 24 hours and cover your container with cling wrap with air holes pierced in it. Check the seeds every few hours, you will be looking for signs of softness and swelling. Get the seeds out and lay them on paper towels and pat them dry. Next, you want a growing medium and sterilized growing containers (washing your containers with a 10 percent bleach solution and rinsing should suffice).
Growing mediums and containers, there are many commercial growing mediums that are suitable for tomatoes or you may want to mix your own. If you are in any doubt ask your local Southern States dealer as to what mix is most suitable for the variety of tomato that you are planning to grow. Mixes with higher fertilizer content should be avoided however, and using garden soil is not recommended. Look for mixes with combinations of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite. Before you plant your seeds, mix your growing medium with water and let it sit for 12 hours or so. You are looking to achieve an overall dampness in the soil, not wet. The choice of container is up to you as long as it can drain water easily.
Tomato seeds are small and you may be tempted to seed some trays with one or more packets. However, bear in mind that the seedlings will need to be transplanted to individual containers for growing later. If you take a little extra time at the planting stage and plant one seed in an individual container from day one this will save you work in the long run. Plant the tomato seed approximately one eighth of an inch down into the growing medium and gently firm down, next, cover the container with a plastic bag to keep the moisture in and also to allow air to circulate. Different tomato varieties will germinate between 70 degrees F and 80 degrees F. Initial planting is usually best done indoors or in a heat regulated greenhouse out of direct sunlight; follow the instructions on your seed packet as for the best time to plant.
Once your seeds have germinated they are going to need light, natural light or fluorescent light will both work and your ideal temperature is now around 65 degrees F. Water your plants only when the growing mix has almost dried out; you may have to turn your seed trays or containers to keep your plants growing straight. Monitoring is the name of the game now as you watch for when to water and when to re-pot your plants to prevent them becoming root bound. If you are planning to move your plants outside (two weeks or so after the last frost) you need to begin to harden them off to prevent shocking them. You may want to consider using a cold frame and avoid exposing them to full sun and wind; bring your plants inside if weather conditions drop near 40 degrees F. As your plants grow larger, some varieties may need staking and you may want to prune off sucker shoots from the stem. There are basically two schools of thought on this. Pruning off the shoots will result in a single stem and a tidy plant that is easy to maintain and get at. However, if you leave the side shoots on they will eventually root into the ground and produce new stems, new stems will equate to more fruit but result in a very large and tangled looking plant. The choice is yours. Clearly, if space is at a premium or you are growing tomato plants in pots then you will most likely be pruning.
As the plants grow and especially, if they are in direct sun, try to avoid too much water accumulating on the leaves, as burning can occur. Continue to water well as needed when the soil is almost dried out. If you are planning to use fertilizers, use them sparingly and follow the directions. Once flower blossoms start to appear and, if you are able to, bringing your plants in at night to a warm room will encourage further blossoms to appear. You may also want to consider planting or positioning bee attracting plants close to your tomato plants, which will aid pollination. Or, if bees and other pollinating insects are scarce you may want to consider using a tomato blossom set spray, which is available from Southern States.
The incidence of pests and diseases can be minimized by rotation. Basically, tomato or tomato related crops, such as potatoes, should not be grown in the same ground more than once in three years. Nonetheless, keep an eye out for common tomato pests and diseases, such as:
Different varieties of tomato will ripen at different times however, in general, pick the fruit when the color is uniformly red and the tomato is slightly soft. You should pick every day and, in the case of some varieties, this may be for two months or more. If you have multiple plants, no matter how much your family enjoys eating a fresh tomato, you will eventually be struggling to keep up. Now, is the time to consider, canning the excess fruit or making home-made sauces, salsas, pickles or chutneys; see Southern States for ideas and a range of home canning equipment. There will also come a time when fall is coming along and you know those green tomatoes are just not going to ripen. Leave it for as long as you can before a frost then pick everything. You could ripen fruit on a windowsill (putting the tomatoes near a ripe banana will hasten ripening) or you can go for making a batch of green tomato chutney; there is no reason why any fruit should be wasted.