The lure of growing your own organic, sun-ripened tomatoes is what gets many of us into veggie gardening - even when our only growing space is a pot. Here are some simple tips to ensure that you avoid the common mistakes and enjoy a good crop of tasty tomatoes, even if you are restricted to growing a plant in a pot.
Jennifer's top 7 tomato-growing tips...
1. Start by getting the basics right.
Tomatoes are large, vigorous plants that need a decent-sized pot filled with good potting mix. A common mistake is to use a container that’s too small, filled with a poor quality potting mix. Go for a pot with drainage holes in its base and that’s at least 40cm across. Plastic pots are a good choice as they are lightweight and don’t dry out too fast, but still offer good drainage and depth. Fill your pot with a good-quality vegetable potting mix (look for one that meets the Australian Standard). Flower Power recommends the Supersoil Professional Herb & Vegie Potting and Planting Mix.
2. Don't start too small.
If you are just starting out, buy an advanced seedling in a small pot, but steer away from seeds or small seedlings. A common mistake is to start from seed or seedling and end up trying to grow too many plants in a small space. The ideal choice for a novice grower is to select one of the cherry varieties or a compact Patio tomato, which has been bred specifically for container growing. Plant just one tomato in each pot so it has access to lots of nutrients, plenty of water and has good air circulation around the plant. Plant it a little more deeply in the pot than it is in the seedling container to encourage a strong root system. Place a 5mm layer of organic mulch over the surface of the potting mix, too - this will both help keep the soil moist and also deter weeds.
3. Be patient when planting.
A common mistake is to plant tomatoes too early in the season – wait until the weather is consistently warm and there’s no likelihood of frost. This can be late August, September, October or even November depending on where you live in Australia.
4. Start with a support system.
All that growth needs support, so make sure that you place a tomato climbing frame or several stakes in the pot at planting. A common mistake is to put the stakes in after the plant has begun to grow, which can risk damaging the roots. As the tomato grows, tie it carefully to the stakes or frame. Use garden twine or pieces of pantyhose, but take care not to tie them so tightly that you damage the stems.
5. Sunshine is vital.
Don’t think that you’ll have success if you can’t put your tomato plant in a spot that gets at least six hours of sunshine each day, preferably more, and preferably in the morning and into the afternoon. Tomatoes need sun and warmth to grow, and a common mistake is to put them into a shaded or windy position where they will struggle. It is okay for the pot to have shade, but the plant itself needs to get generous amounts of sunlight in order to thrive.
6. Check your plant daily.
The tomato is not a plant that thrives on neglect. A common mistake is to forget your tomato plant is there, fail to provide water and allow it to dry out and become stressed. Not only will drying out mean poor growth, but the fruit can also be damaged by periods of dryness, and the potting mix may become difficult to water. When watering, check that the water is soaking into the potting mix, and that any excess can drain freely from the base of the pot. Tomatoes like lots of attention, so make a ritual of checking your plant every day. Give it water at least once daily (more often in very hot weather) and liquid feed with tomato food, such as Powerfeed, every seven to 10 days. Other regular tasks include removing side shoots (these are called laterals) so that the plant doesn’t become too large and bushy. It is also okay to pinch out the top growth once the tomato has grown to the top of its stake or frame.
7. Patrol for pests.
Protect your fruit from the number one tomato pest, which is fruit fly. A common mistake is to think that because your plant is growing in a courtyard, on a balcony or in a small garden, fruit fly won’t find it. These pesky insects can and will ruin your fruit before it is ripe. Cherry tomatoes are usually not attacked by fruit fly, but it is still wise to use an organic fruit fly lure, such as eco-naturalure, applied to the stakes or a nearby surface to stop this pest (follow the instructions on the container). In addition, consider covering fruit clusters with an exclusion bag (not necessary for cherry tomatoes). The exclusion bag will also protect the fruit from bird attack. Alternatively, harvest larger fruit before it is fully ripe and allow it to ripen indoors in a fruit bowl in the kitchen. To harvest, carefully snip the large fruit from the tomato plant with a little bit of stem attached.