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4 October 2011

Growing organic tomatoes

I hate wasting time. Let me make it clear though, my time wasting doesn't include sitting on the front verandah staring into space, reading obscure books and websites, walking around aimlessly, drinking tea, casting 80 stitches on my needles, knitting a few rows, then unwinding it all, and re-starting. No, those activities are part of a normal week for me, they soothe my mind and remind me that I have the delicious luxury of time to do whatever I want and if my knitting is not as good as I want it to be, I can take more time with it. But sowing vegetable seeds that I leave too long before planting out or we have no use for, that, my friends, is a waste of time. 

Although we've been producing food in our backyard for the 14 years we've lived here, and in our old home before that, it's only in the last five or six years that I felt compelled to do it. I do it for a reason now, before it was a hobby and a way to eat fresh organic food without having to spend an arm and a leg to buy it. Now I believe we should use the land we live on, make it productive, remove ourselves from the passive food experience provided by  supermarkets and actively play a part in producing food for the table. That keeps us skilled and independent. We want to look after ourselves and do it for as long as possible.

So, we have a set group of vegetables we eat here and now that our family is growing, when they visit us or we visit them, we share the produce with them. Who knows, we may add a few new vegetables or new varieties in the coming seasons, but right now, we set and happy with what we grow. 

This is the potting box Hanno made for me last year. It comes in very handy when I'm potting a large number of seedlings - I don't waste potting mix and I have plenty of space to work in. You can see the long thin pots used to plant the tomato seedlings.  Below is the container of heirlooms planted up and set out in the morning sun.

One of our main crops is tomatoes. We have well and truly weaned ourselves off hybrid seeds and seedlings and grow only heirlooms or open pollinated seeds. My tomato of choice is the Brandywine. I love all the beefsteak tomatoes, but Brandywines are my favourite. We have a very heathy crop of tomatoes already producing in the garden and about 3 weeks ago I sowed a sprinkling of mixed heirloom tomatoes in a recycled plastic strawberry punnet, as our followup crop. They germinated and started growing well, and were ready for transplanting. I've found we get the best successes if we plant on the seedlings a couple of times - each time into a bigger container, before planting them in the garden. So yesterday, I did just that. To leave them any longer would have stressed them and the entire exercise would have been a waste of time.

These three photos are all of the same garden bed. The photo above was taken on 20 September, the photo below was taken yesterday, 13 days later, on 3 October.

This is our current crop of tomatoes. They are unknown beefsteaks, Siberians and Kotlas.

I like to choose long pots so the roots can travel deep down. I use good quality potting mix that drains well and water in with seaweed tea and a weak worm tea. The seedlings will take a couple of days to recover from the transplant, then they'll grow strongly, with just a bit of water every second day.  In about three weeks, I'll pot them on again, this time giving them a drink of sulphate of pot ash and another weak worm tea. When the plants start forming flowers, they'll be planted in the garden.  When they're planted out, I bury the stem up to the first set of leaves - doing this will allows tomatoes to develop more roots and will therefore be stronger and produce more fruit.

I've put all the pots in a container so they don't fall over. The container is a recycled plastic vegetable crisper bin from an old fridge that Hanno drilled plenty of holes in it to let any excess water drain away. All the teas I add, and the sulphate of potash, are organic. I don't see the point of putting harsh chemicals and manufactured fertilisers on home grown plants. You might as well buy your produce at the shop. Try to grow organically. It will give you beautiful food that is healthy, you will know what you're eating and you'll keep your land alive and productive. If you use mulches like straw, lucerne, old grass clippings, shredded paper and compost, you'll be enriching the soil as you go - and that is the best way to produce food.

There are 23 mixed heirloom tomatoes growing out there now. I have no idea what they'll turn out to be but there are three potato leaf varieties so one of them may be a brandywine. We could also have yellow, orange, green or black tomatoes, as well as reds and pinks.  It's a real surprise packet.  Hanno will choose those he wants to plant out and I'll take the rest of them up to the Centre to be part of the kitchen garden we're starting there.

The photo above is the St Pierre tomato on the day it was planted in the pot - 23 September. Below is the same tomato ten days later, 3 October. 

Tomatoes are one of the plants we can all grow. They'll even grow in a large pot, hessian bag or a bag of potting soil that has drainage holes in it.  I have potted a French heirloom called St Pierre in a large terracotta pot and it's doubled in size in two weeks. The St Pierre is a medium sized beefsteak variety with "superior flavour".  I'm looking forward to trying it. If you're in a flat or apartment and want to grow something, try one tomato. If you live alone, or are a couple, one good tomato plant will keep you in tomatoes for a couple of months.

If you've never eaten homegrown tomatoes, or heirlooms, be prepared for a delightful surprise. They're unlike anything you'll get at the supermarket and they may just lure you further into the wonderful world of home produced food.  There is nothing better for lunch than a sandwich made with your own baked bread, home grown tomatoes, a bit of vinegar, salt and pepper and maybe a soft boiled egg on the side. Add to that a cup of black tea or a fresh fruit juice and you have a lunch before you fit for the Queen.


  1. Hello Rhonda, I enjoyed this post on tomatoes. I'm wondering if you or your readers could help me with mine. We have terrible blights, wilt, & viruses here on tomatoes. I have tried everything I can to eliminate the problem including, sterilizing the soil, rotating positions in the yard, not wetting the leaves, buying quality plants, keeping the area clean, etc. It seems there is no solution that will work here in Virginia, USA. We have coal mining here. My neighbors are all effected here as well, very few have success with tomatoes in our area without dosing them with chemicals. Any ideas? I would love an organic aid that would help, this problem has worsened in the last several years.

  2. Hi Annie, we have wilt here too. It's such a pain to deal with. As you know, wilt is caused by fungus in the soil. Here is a page to read so you can identify what problem you have:

    Keep doing what you're doing because all those measures help, but I have found we get our best tomatoes when we mulch with straw so the soil doesn't get splashed on the lower leaves. Also, remove the lower leaves when you plant the tomatoes and when you see the first sign of wilt, remove those leaves. You might only get one flush of tomatoes but it's better than none. Good luck, love.

  3. How wonderful to see the difference in growth. :-) Our Tomato plants grow like weeds's great. The only thing we can't seem to grow is Beetroot. If you grow Beetroot, I would appreciate a post on how you do it successfully.

  4. I loved this post and thank you for sharing it! :)

  5. Hi Rhonda, Thanks for this post, it is very timely for me! I planted my tomato seeds out last monday and they have germinated and starting to grow and I was just thinking about what to do next with them as I have started them in small 6 cell pots. I know now I will try what you have done in your post here and take them through several pots before planting them out. Great tip about waiting for the flower to come, I had no idea as it's my first try growing them :) I was wondering with Courgettes, I am trying them this year as well and my seeds have germinated and are now long stems that are droopy, would you stake them or are they just a plant that likes to be left to ramble?

    Thanks Rhonda, Regards, Ruth

  6. Mrs W, courgettes, which we call zucchini, should be planted into a raised mound, maybe 4 or 5 inches higher than your garden bed. They are prone to powdery mildew which can affect yield. Seeing as they're already planted, mulch them (with straw or shredded paper) so the leaves are not in contact with the soil, water in the morning so plant has a chance to dry out during the day and pick off any leaf that looks sick. Don't compose the leaves, get rid of them or solarise them in a plastic bag in the sun for a couple of weeks. If you get in early, spraying with milk diluted with water - 9 parts water to one milk, might help keep the powdery mildew at bay. Good luck with your garden.

  7. A very timely post for me Rhonda. For the first time this year I am attempting to grow a substantial variety of things from seed, tomatoes being one of them :-)

    I can get seeds to germinate its the bit after that I seem to have problems with, particularly it seems keeping newly planted in the garden seedlings safe from being eaten by bugs (any suggestions on that one lol????). This has been just the thing I needed to read though, having just repotted my first group of tomato seedlings into a bigger pot on the weekend.

    Thank you!!!

  8. Amen about the tomato sandwich on freshly baked bread! We enjoyed that exact same treat for lunch this weekend and it was divine! Nothing tastier. Your garden looks so lush, verdant and healthy - the exact opposite of mine :) We northerners are putting our tired gardens to bed for a long winters rest...

  9. I'm sure you've written it somewhere before Rhonda but can you tell me why you have upside down terracotta pots on your garden posts? I have noticed this in your garden posts for a while now and have always wondered WHY?

    Your tomatoes look very healthy... Mine are just starting to get a go on now too, I plant lots of cherry tomatoes and small grape tomatoes, the children eat them like lollies, ripe or not! I'm afraid the larger varieties may not make it to maturity!! :)

  10. gooseberry, that is the most frequently asked question I get on my blog. Originally it was so we didn't take out an eye on the top of the garden stakes. Now I just like the look of them. :- )

  11. LOL! Maybe you could paint little faces on them, turn them into mini scarecrows with terracotta top :)

  12. I hate the tomatoes you get in the supermarket. Maybe next summer I will try to grow one in a pot in my flat. I'd love fresh heirloom tomatoes!

  13. Rhonda,
    I quite like the upside down pots too. Gives the garden a quaint, cosy feeling, almost like you had stepped back in time to a traditional country garden =)
    I have usually bought tomato seedlings when planting my crop. I would like to try from scratch though. I just re-read your tips on saving seeds and how to sow them. Earlier this year I made my first attempt and was happily fermenting my tomato seeds. Unfortunately the hubby had no idea what was happening and threw them out when washing up in the kitchen. LOL. Reminder to self - put warning note on bottle and inform family of experimentation in progress.
    By the way, I think I had asked earlier, but I remember you had mentioned on another blog that you can make tomato plants from prunings taken from a growing plant. Most intriguing. How does one do this? Any chance of a photo or a link to a post/site?

    Trinidad & Tobago

  14. Wonderful post! I adore seeing your home and garden; it's so peaceful and obviously well-loved.

    I am starting to plan my first big garden for next spring (I'm in the US), so have been knee-deep in gardening blogs and books for a while (including yours!). I'm loving every minute of it. I can't wait to have delicious produce right at my doorstep, grown with my own two hands.

  15. Annie, I have *no idea* if it would help you but when we lived in So. Calif, there was a man with a prolific tomato patch who swore by putting a tablespoon of epsom salts in the hole when he planted his seedlings and then he would put another tablespoon in a hole about 3 inches from the base when the plants were 2 ft. tall. He avoided the wilt and blight but it could have been for other reasons - we never tried it because we moved to Oregon soon after.

  16. Rhonda,

    I love the piece "When I Am in the Kitchen" that you have posted on the right of your page here.

    It evokes so many things for me. I remember from my childhood my mom talking about where she got things we used in her kitchen. My kitchen is the same way: the rolling pin and custard dishes from old Mrs Dewey who lived across the back fence (when she died, her offspring put them out for the rubbish! I was only 8 but couldn't imagine letting them fade into oblivion), my husband's granny's ladle and griddle, my grandmother's piggy shaped cutting board and wood handled can opener, my gran's bunny cookie (biscuit) cutter and numerous hand written recipes, Mrs Jenks' pressure cooker, and so much more. I'm going to make sure all my kids remember the stories of where I got these things - it is a heritage.

  17. I mentioned this in my comment on your seasonal post, but I will say it again becuase it seem relavent. This year is the first year we relied soley on our tomatoes we put up from last year's garden. It was such an awesome experieince. I've never been so excited about a tomato! They are one of my favorite crops to grow and by far are alloted the most garden space. I love brandywines! This year we got a variety from our local seed shop called Ealiest Paste which is phenomenal for sauce. We really should save some seed though and get off the having to buy them each year. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Also, I love that the type of tomatoes will be a surprise! How fun!

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  19. Hello

    Just wondering how the St Pierre worked out? I was looking at them in the Eden Seeds catalogue only yesterday.


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