Growing Tomatoes in Victoria
Tomatoes are a delicious staple in the summer veggie garden. They are one of the most rewarding veggies to grow. They produce an abundance of fruit through summer and late autumn. A tomato which has been sun-ripened on the vine just bursts with flavour! Tomatoes are arguably the taste of summer. In Victoria, the traditional time to plant tomatoes is between the AFL Grand Final and Melbourne Cup, just as the weather is becoming consistently warm and the danger of frost has passed.
Tomatoes are versatile in the kitchen and can be made into all sorts of sauces if you an over-supply. They come in many shapes and sizes as well as a variety of colours. Choose your variety according to your taste and to suit your needs.
You get determinate and indeterminate varieties. The determinate varieties are usually hybrids that only grow to certain size. The fruit on a determinate vine all ripens at the same time. They are often easier to keep in check in a small veggie garden. Indeterminate varieties keep growing longer vines all through the season. These are often heirloom varieties and usually produce for a longer season, but can get out of hand if they aren’t pruned or trained onto supports. Their fruits are produced and ripen over the whole season, until they are killed by frost. Use basil as a companion plant to improve the flavour of the tomatoes.
Most tomato varieties will need a fair amount of support to keep them upright, stop them from smothering the plants around them, and to keep their fruit from lying on the ground while it ripens. Stakes, cages and trellises are all common ways of supporting tomatoes. Its usually best to have your supports in the ground before you plant to avoid damaging the plants’ delicate root systems.
If you’re growing heirloom varieties be sure to provide support for them. They grow on long vines and can smother other veggies if they aren’t contained.
During the hottest parts of the Victorian summer, your tomatoes will appreciate some shade in the afternoons to protect them from the worst of the summer heat. You can plant them in a spot that’s shaded in the afternoon or put up shade cloth to give them some protection
Tomatoes are pretty heavy feeders, so dig some well-rotted manure and compost into your soil before planting. Sheep manure is an especially good option, because it contains phosphorus and potassium as well as the usual nitrogen which is found in all manures. Tomatoes like a soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.2, if your soil is too acidic, your tomatoes may develop blossom-end rot. Soil pH test kits are readily available, so its worth testing your soil, especially if you’ve been adding compost to it for a few years. If the pH is too high, add some lime to your soil.
This is also the stage where you want to get the supports for your tomatoes in place. There are many methods and ideas for staking tomatoes; stakes, cages, and trellises are the common ones. It’s a good rule to always use more support than you think you will need, because it’s easy to forget just how big a tomato vine can grow.
Only sow tomatoes into the garden once its consistently warm and all danger of frost has passed.
Tomatoes can be sown directly into the veggie garden and then thinned once they’re up. They are most often sown in pots or seed trays and then the strongest seedlings are transplanted into the veggie garden. They self-seed really easily, so you might find plants springing up in areas where tomatoes were grown in previous years or even just from seeds that are in the compost.
Only plant tomatoes once its consistently warm and all danger of frost has passed.
When you plant your seedlings, add a small amount of bonemeal to each hole. This will help your tomatoes to develop strong root systems. Lay your seedlings on their side when you plant them and then cover most of the stem, only leaving the very top where the leaves are. Tomatoes grow new roots out of parts of their stems that are covered in soil. The better the root system, the more vigorous your plants will be.
Tomatoes can be propagated from seed or from cuttings. They root very easily, but don’t like frost and are hard to over-winter, so they are most often grown from seeds, but if you have a green house, you can take cuttings and keep them going till spring.
Keep training vines into their supports as they grow. They can be tied on with something soft and elastic. Old pantyhose are ideal. Pinch out the growing tips of indeterminate varieties if you want them to stop growing longer.
Tomatoes are thirsty plants and need regular deep watering. Dry periods can cause the tomatoes to drop fruit and sudden over-supplies of water can lead to the fruit splitting open. The trick with tomatoes is a steady supply of water. They don’t like dry roots, but they also don’t like waterlogged soil.
Tomatoes need a fair amount of feeding and have some quite particular feeding requirements. TO simplify this process, you can feed this with an organic tomato feed. These feeds are specifically developed for tomatoes and contain all the nutrients they need.
Alternatively, feed them regularly with a balanced (not too high in nitrogen) organic fertilizer such as a fish emulsion or compost tea. They will also benefit from a regular Epsom salt solution feed. For an even better flavour and to improve disease resistance, apply a small handful of sulphate of potash around the base of each plant every few weeks. Be sure to water the potash in straight away.
A good mulch will help to keep the weeds out and the water in. Remember to keep top up your mulch as it breaks down into your soil. Pea straw or lucerne are both good options. You can add extra organic material to your mulch to turn it into a feeding mulch. Feeding mulches can encourage the growth of extra stem-roots which help plants to grow stronger and produce higher yields. Be careful not add too much nitrogen though, as that will lead to strong bushy plants with low yields. A small amount of manure or blood and bone added to your usual organic mulch is ideal.
Simply pull or cut the fruit from the vine.
For the tastiest tomatoes, harvest them once they have fully ripened on the vine. Tomatoes that are harvested before they are fully ripe, will keep ripening if they are kept at room temperature, but will never have quite as good a flavour as vine-ripened tomatoes.
Picking often and regularly from indeterminate vines can encourage them produce more fruit. So, if want a bumper harvest, don’t wait for them to be fully ripe before you pick. Rather, pick them early and let them ripen indoors. You’ll sacrifice a little on flavour, but you’ll get a bigger harvest.
If there is a frost coming or you’re going to be away from home for a while its worth harvesting the unripe tomatoes and letting them ripen indoors. There are even some delicious recipes to use up green tomatoes before they ripen.