10 March 2010

Sowing vegetable seeds - tomatoes

Carrying on from the post on sowing seeds yesterday, I'd like to add the following vital information.  While the seed is still covered with soil, it does not need anything other than moisture and warmth to make it grow.  However, when the seed germinates and sends up green shoots, it will need bright light as well.  When it gets a little bigger, the plant will need food; the energy in the seed will be exhausted.  Then you should start your fertilising schedule.  When you plant the seedlings out, there should be abundant food in the soil in the form of compost, manures and castings, or whatever it is you've decided to use on your plants.  That should be in the soil.  While the seedling is still in the tray, you'll need to feed it - there is very little nutrient in seed raising mix, sand or vermiculite.
The ultimate prize - homemade tomato relish.

We only ever use organic fertilisers here - either bought from the nursery or homemade.  Generally when our seedlings are still in their trays, we fertilise them with weak fish emulsion, weak liquid blood and bone OR weak comfrey or worm tea (homemade). Not all of them, choose one.  Comfrey or worm tea is an excellent choice for both leafy green vegies and for fruiting ones, like cucumbers and capsicums/peppers. Fish emulsion and liquid blood and bone will put on healthy growth on your green leafy vegetables.  I never go by the container recommendations on the fertiliser, I make up a 50% solution and apply it twice as often.  For instance, if your fertiliser instructions recommend making up a 10 litre/quart watering can with two caps of fertiliser concentrate and apply it fortnightly, I would make up a watering can with one cap full of concentrate and apply it weekly.
A tray of tomato seedlings, newly emerged.  At this stage they need no fertiliser but strong light.  Enough light so a shadow is cast.
So, now on to tomatoes.  Forget what I said above about fertilisers, tomatoes are different.  I picked up this way of growing tomatoes from Peter Cundall, surely Australia's master vegetable gardener.  I plant the seeds as normal and wait for germination.  When the plant has grown to be about two inches above the top of the soil, I transplant it to a slightly bigger pot, fertilising with comfrey and a pinch of sulphate of potash (it's organic).  Each time I transplant, I also water the plants with seaweed tea - this helps significantly with translpant shock. I wait again and when it grows another inch or two, I transplant it again to a larger pot - each time I remove the bottom leaves and bury the plant deep, and water with seaweed tea  You can do this with very few plants, it would kill most of them.  But tomatoes have the ability to produce more roots along their main stem and the more roots you have on a tomatoes, if you grow a healthy plant, the more fruit it will produce.  Tomatoes also like being slightly root bound.

When they're a little bigger, transplant to a larger pot.

You keep your tomatoes seedlings going like this until they're strong and healthy and when they flower, you plant them in the garden - again, deep in the soil into which a pinch of sulphate of potash has been added.  You might even bury half the stem and have the top half of the tomatoes about the soil.  Put the stakes in before you plant the seedlings so you don't damage the roots by doing it later.  If the plant is big enough, tie it to the stake straight away.  Remove any axis shoots because if you allow them to grow, they'll make a very bushy plant and you'll get fewer tomatoes.
 When you transplant again to a larger pot, pinch or cut off the lower leaves.

Once you've planted the tomatoes out and tied them to their stakes, mulch heavily with straw or hay, packing it in around the stem and up about three inches.  Again, most plants would hate this but tomatoes thrive with this treatment. Water the mulch well without watering the tomatoes leaves.  Always water tomatoes from below, never over the top of the plant. Splashing mud onto leaves with the hose will encourage disease.  If you mulch well, the tomatoes will send more roots out into the mulch.  Do not over fertilise tomatoes with nitrogen, it will make the bush grow like mad but you'll get almost no tomatoes.  Make sure you keep staking and keep the branches off the ground.  When the tomatoes are big enough, pick them still green, and ripen them in the house, out of the sun.  They will develop their full flavour that way and be out of harm's way.
All the while, they'll need strong light while being protected from the harsh weather.

Tomatoes suffer from a disease called blossom end rot which is caused by inconsistent watering, resulting in a lack of calcium in the plants.  You'll see a big circle that runs around the blossom end of the fruit.  To avoid this, set up a watering schedule so your plants get consistent watering and don't suffer periods of dry.
When they're at this size and start flowering, plant them in the garden.

So, my friends, that's one of many ways of growing tomatoes.  I'm sure you won't be disappointed if you try it.  Just think of all those delicious tomato sandwiches and jars of tomato relish standing like jewels in your cupboard.  Mmmmm.  If you're growing heirlooms this year, don't forget to keep your very best tomato to save seeds from.  Yes, I know it's a huge sacrifice to save THE best, but you want to pass on THE best seeds.
In my opinion the best tomato for flavour - the pink Brandywine.

If I were a betting woman, which I'm not, I'd bet that almost all our gardeners here would be growing tomatoes at some times during the season.  Who will be growing tomatoes and what varieties are you growing?


  1. Thank you for the help Rhonda! I have been interested in gardening for a long time and this year I am finally able to start. I am most interested in growing tomatoes so this post was extremely helpful.

  2. My absolute favorite, which we have been growing every year, is the dark red porter cherry tomato, and the yellow pear (grape) tomato. Yum! I'm near Dallas, TX and I have an easy time with the grape and cherry but a harder time growing the great big ones.

  3. Hi Rhonda Jean. Your post is particularly early this morning. Your tomato relish looks absolutely delicious. I alway appreciate the wonderful photos that accompany your posts.
    Have a good day,
    Tracy (Brisbane)

  4. I always grow tomatoes. Never get to many though.. I don't have a lot of experience with gardening so any advice is very helpful. Thank you!

  5. My tomato growing season is about 2/3rds of the way through, now. I grew Tommy Toe, J Walsh ( but having talked to Koanga gardens justyesterday it appears I didnt get the right seeds and got roma plum instead - that's why they were so good in the passata!) Koanga gardens were very sorry and are sending me a packet of real J walsh seeds - how lovely!
    Also a huge beefie called Mortgage lifter, some wee cherry - sweet 100 - and one from last years seeds which I think was moneymaker.
    I love growing tomatoes!We've had a bumper crop this year. I have passata to last all year and I've lost count of the tomato and mozzarella and basil salads we've had over summer.
    I must say your planting method sounds great.

  6. Hi Rhonda,

    It's too late for planting tomatoes and other summer fruit here in Tas! For next season, how early should I start my seedlings? I'm not sure if it late oct or early November when we should plant, but how long do you take to them in the garden?

  7. This is my first time gardening since I was 15. Back then, I had some sunflowers and cucumbers and that was it.

    This year I am growing yellow pear cherry tomatoes. I don't really like tomatoes, myself, but my 8-month-old does. If he will eat them, I will grow them for him!

    I planted my seeds about a month ago and they are about an inch high.

    Thanks for the info in this post - I will definitely use it!

  8. We love to grow tomatoes. We'll be growing early girls, cherry tomatoes,yellow pear, Zapotec pleated, Amish and Ropreco Paste, Green Zebras, Thessonolakis, and Amana orange. I made quarts and quarts of salsa and pasta sauce, but it's been gone for a while. Can't wait for summer!

  9. Love to try new tomato varieties. This year I started: pink brandywine, roma, homestead, principe, reisentraube, cour di bue, old german, lady lucy. I think that's it. LOL I hope I have enough room in the garden. I wasn't planning on everything coming up, but so far there's not many seeds that didn't.

  10. Hi Rhonda, thanks for the great coverage on tomatoes. I can see I have left out several steps that would have led to healthier plants this season, but I'm learning!

  11. Perfect timing, I'm planting tomatoes this week! Thanks.

  12. All heirlooms:
    Mule Team
    Arkansas Traveler
    Al Kuffa
    Henderson’s Pink Ponderosa

    It only took 5 days for seeds to sprout.

  13. The jury is still out on my favorite slicing tomato. I would love to have several varieties in a row and just go down the line, tasting and deciding!

    My absolute, all-time favorite cherry tomato is "Sweet 100" or "Sweet 1000"! Talk about sugary sweet, flavor-filled, no bitterness, and resists infestation like a pro. I always plant this variety and see my kids sneaking them from the vigorous plants all season long. They grow well in a garden or in pots ~ and they do sport at least 100 cherry tomatoes per plant in one season! YUM!
    Simple to grow for the beginner. Well worth it!

  14. Hi Rhonda, Thanks for this post today, my husband was explaining this same information to me last night. I will show him this post later. Have a great day :-)
    Erika (Gold Coast)

  15. Hi Rhonda, Now you are tlaing! I work in a nursery and got my education in horticulture. It is true that seeds often need strong light, although not always. Certainly in the case of tomatoes, basil, and other summer crops however. The food should be added about 6-8 weeks after the seeds come up. The seed mix and the seed itself have enough food in them for about that length of time. Also care should be taken to keep them moist, but not wet during germination. Too much moisture can cause damping off and fungus; so if covered, the seed should be given an airing for about an hour or two per day.

  16. I just started my tomato seeds yesterday. I purchased them all from a local organic seed farm. I've got Ailsa Craig, Ethiopia, Purple Calabash, and Elfin Cherry.

  17. This post will really help me out, Rhonda! Last year was my first year with a garden and the cherry tomatoes I bought from plants did much better than the seedlings I grew for big tomatoes. After reading your post, I have enough confidence to try seedlings again, hopefully with better results. How I love good juicy homegrown tomatoes! I have practically quit buying them off-season.

  18. First of all, I am going to miss your posts - but totally understand. Taking care of yourself and your family must come first. I'll just have to be patient in the meantime. :0)

    I agree with you about the Brandywine tomato. It is my absolute favorite! The flavor is divine! I grow those, Romas for salsa, and occasionally grape tomatoes. Although, my husband doesn't care for those, I think they're delightful. Thanks for all of your wonderful tips!

  19. still very cold and frosty here in the UK - just itching to get sowing!

  20. Just a hint about feeding tomato seedlings - don't feed them until they have started flowering. Once they start flowering, they will keep flowering and you will have the fruit setting. If you feed them too much before they start flowering, they will probably develop lots of leaves and not worry about flowers for a while. I keep mine in pots until they have flowered, then put them out into a fertile bed. One way to get them to flower is to let them get a little too dry - if they think they might die they will start flowering.

  21. I'll be growing a variety of Brandywine called 'Cherokee' (I saved seeds from last year's fruits).

    I love tomatoes! :D

    I'm going to start a variety, including cherry, plum, paste and slicing tomatoes. A local nursery is having heirloom tomatoes grown from seed, so I'll be keeping an eye out for varieties new to me. I am hoping for a yellow pear and a green stripey one.

    Our last frost (average) isn't until mid-May, and our record last frost isn't until mid-June, so I have oodles of time. :)

  22. Thanks for the post Rhonda! I confess I discovered your blog a couple of months ago and have been secretly reading away. I have made soap for the first time following your tutorial, home made laundry liquid and cleaning spray, have not looked back since. This post on growing tomatoes will definately help us out - we live in Perth, West Australia and have not been very successfull because of the heat lately, but hopefully the last tomato plant we have left will benefit from your advice :-) Keep up the 'good blogging' you may never know how many people benefit from your advise and experiences. Cheers!

  23. I have little cherry tomatoes growing over a brick wall - more leaves than fruit though! Most of my tomatoes grow wild is that ok or are you better off sowing the seeds in pots? Lorraine (novice gardener)

  24. Wow, you are such an inspiration!!!! I look forward to having the space to attempt this, and I know the wisdom here will guide me through it!

  25. Hi,
    Thanks for this interesting and useful post.
    Over the last few years I've been gardening. Specially, I'm familiar of tomato gardening. I've read your post and think that this will help people to know about growing tomatoes.

  26. That was SO helpful. Thank-you. I haven't had much luck with seeds, but i have also not been feeding them - oops. So i will try again and am determined to get it right.

    I find your blog so inspiring and uplifting. Thank-you for doing it and sharing your life with us.

  27. I'm planting Black Russian heritage tomato Rhonda. Thank you for the tip to harvest the tomatoes when they are green and ripen them inside. I have netted them with a fine netting bought from Capalaba Produce. It's a fine enough net to keep out fruit fly. I also find that cherry tomatoes pop up in my allotment, I allow some to grow to maturity and give me sweet little tomatoes. The fruit fly leave them alone. This blog post is full of detail and well described each process in raising strong tomato plants. Thank you.

    1. Tomatoes are self pollinating but be sure you don't plant other vegetables near the tomatoes that need pollinating. Good luck with the crop.


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