Expert Tips for Growing Best Tomato Plants
Records show that the tomato, Lycopersicum esculentum, has been known and grown for many centuries. Natives of South America these plants came to Europe in the Seventeenth century when they were cultivated as ornamental subjects under the name of Love Apples.
There are many varieties of wild tomatoes of which the fruit differs considerably in shape, size and colour. They vary in height, some if not checked growing many feet, others being dwarf and bushy.
The fruit contains vitamin C, although the juice of the fruit is less valuable than that of blackcurrants, strawberries or oranges. Vitamin B1 is also present, but it is their vitamin A content that makes tomatoes so valuable.
Whether you are growing tomatoes outdoors or under glass, the plants are raised in a similar way. Since the seeds are large and can be handled individually they should be spaced 12mm apart in boxes or pans of a clean seed sowing compost. Cover the seeds well, then place glass and paper over the boxes to exclude light.
For quickest results, keep the receptacles in a temperature of 18 to 20°C. After a few days, growth will be seen and the covering can be removed. Once the seed leaves open, each seedling can be transferred separately into small pots or soil blocks. When they have settled in the pots, the temperature can be reduced by 2 or 3 degrees with free ventilation. Only first class seedlings should be potted up. Plants with fern-like leaves are known as rogues or ‘jacks’ and should be discarded.
A good way of producing really strong, if not the best tomato plants, is to maintain a fairly even temperature. When the heat varies, irregular growth is produced. Sturdy, short jointed plants of a deep green colour are likely to be the most fruitful. Avoid long jointed, hard, wiry stemmed plants.
It is the practice of commercial growers to sow from mid-winter onwards where fruit is required from late spring onwards. The majority of amateur gardeners sow in succession to obtain a longer fruiting period.
It is never wise to put tomatoes outdoors until danger of cold weather has passed. Allow 38 to 45cm between the plants and if a double row is being used, 45cm should be between them. Bush types need wide spacing, say 60cm between the plants and 75cm between rows. Staking should be done immediately after planting, the ties being made as growth proceeds.
Disturb the roots as little as possible. Pot grown plants are easy to knock out. Those raised in boxes can be carefully removed. For these, first cut the roots down to the bottom of the box in the shape of a cube, then lift each one with plenty of soil. Place them firmly in position so there is 12mm of soil above the roots.
Standard varieties are usually grown on a single stem, all side shoots being removed while they are small. They can also be grown on double or treble stems depending on their strength. It is rarely worthwhile allowing outdoor plants to carry more than four trusses of fruit for there is insufficient time for more fruit to ripen. Pinch out growing points in late summer, even if they have only formed three trusses. When buying plants choose a named variety from a known source.
The best tomato plants thrive in the warm greenhouse where there is an absence of draughts, good ventilation and a minimum night temperature of around 12°C. For preference, use a greenhouse glazed to ground level if the plants are to be grown in the ‘floor’ or border. Otherwise, the beds will have to be raised or made up on the staging. Alternatively, grow the pants in large pots or deep boxes.
Whether outdoors or indoors, tomatoes like fairly rich root conditions. Strawy horse manure is ideal but difficult to obtain. Among good substitutes used by growers are moist wheat straw, well dusted with hoof and horn manure, ripe compost, well decayed seaweed or spent hops. Peat or leaf mould help to increase the humus content and provide bulk which encourages plenty of roots to develop. Add lime as necessary.
At planting time, make sure the sub-soil is moist. Beds on the staging can be made up with the same soil mixture. Place a covering over the slats, followed by drainage material. Boards 23 to 25cm wide, should be fixed to the front of the staging, to get the proper root depth when the compost is added. This need only be 13cm deep at first. Add more compost as growth proceeds, so the soil level comes to within 25mm of the top of the board.
Liquid manure should be given at ten day intervals once the first trusses of fruits have set. For plants in pots or boxes, a simple soil mixture on the basis of the John Innes potting compost No. 2, can be used.
The best tomato plants must be thoroughly hardened off before being planted out. Make sure they are well watered some time before they are knocked out of their pots. Set the plants 45cm apart allowing 60cm between rows. In larger plantings, leave an alleyway of 90cm to l.20m after every four rows to make it easier for cleaning the soil, removing side shoots and fruit gathering.
Plant with a trowel and press the soil firmly around the roots so the root ball and garden soil are in close contact. Do not water the plants unless the surrounding soil is on the dry side. If the weather turns cold as soon as the tomatoes have been planted, place cloches, large pots or newspapers over them at night but remove them the next morning.
The plants selected for growing on (your best tomato plants) should be short jointed, stocky, of good colour and about 20 to 30cm high. It is best to place supports in position before planting. This ensures that no damage is done to the roots, but the plants can be supported and kept upright at once.
If they fall about, the stems may become ‘kinked’. As the plants grow, keep them tied to supports with soft string or wide raffia. Leave room in the tie for the stems to expand. Where really large, heavy trusses of fruit develop, these should be looped to the main stem to prevent breakage of the truss stem. Keep side shoots removed while small.
Hot days followed by warm humid nights are ideal for the full natural setting of the fruit. In hot, dry weather light overhead sprayings of water can be given in the evening but do this with care to avoid the crippling blight disease.
Tomatoes can be grown successfully in frames of various kinds, and barn cloches are also suitable. Place these structures in a fairly open, yet sheltered position, preferably running north and south. This will encourage good growth.
Planting is usually done in early spring. A bed of fairly rich soil should be made up, well moistened peat being useful for encouraging a good root system. Good supports will be needed. Keep the frame covered until June giving plenty of ventilation whenever the weather is favourable. Plants under tall frames can be supported by wire or string and canes.
The best tomato plants do well under cloches in a sunny site and where there is shelter from winds. With the exception of those planted in light soil, take out a trench 18cm deep and 30cm wide at the top, tapering to the bottom. Prepare early, applying good organic fertiliser and plenty of peat at the base to provide proper growing conditions.
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