Growing tomatoes in Sydney … why is it so hard at home?

Tomatoes are one of those plants that is part of pretty much every culture. As a byproduct of this, there are literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes.

What?!?! I hear you say. Hundreds?!?!

Yep. But your probably only familiar with what you find in your local store … red cherry tomatoes, yellow pear tomato, oval tomatoes, large smooth red tomatoes and nice round truss tomatoes. But that’s not all…. there are yellow stripped tomatoes, green tomatoes, purple ones, pulpy ones, pink ones, tomatoes with few seeds and juicy tomatoes with lots of seeds. Not to mention that most have a preferred climate too.

The tomatoes you see in store are generally of only a few varieties. You might see some labelled “heirloom”, which simply means they are not commercially grown in the region.

This year, we experimented with some very old fashioned bush tomatoes. These little guys essentially only grow to about 50cm … but don’t let their stature fool you! They produced a huge number of fruit very quickly. Infact, we normally don’t expect to have tomatoes at Christmas … and these little ones have almost finished their fruiting cycle in mid December.

Here is a pic of one of the bush cherry tomatoes that we grew this year. There is a small spinach (rainbow chard) plant on the right for reference.

As you can see, we were a little optimistic with the garden stake. It didn’t need one! We’ve collected a huge number of seeds from these guys as they have been brilliant and would suit planting in the following places…

  • pots
  • patios
  • low light situations
  • as a companion plant
  • a veggie hedge
  • accessible veggie patch

These bush cherry tomatoes were planted under one of our older mandarin trees and have grown wonderfully. With such an early harvest, it also means that our longer to harvest varieties (such as Apollo pear and Grosse Lisse) are almost ready to pick as we pull these guys out.

Here is a pic of our almost mature Grosse Lisse patch. You can see some nice sized fruit at the bottom. These should be ready in about 2 weeks time. Just in time for Christmas!

One of the biggest problems with growing tomatoes in Sydney is that they need LOTS of water, LOTS of manure, need to be protected from fruit fly (netting or spray), need protection from birds and possums, take at least 4 months to produce fruit (for the large varieties) and cannot be grown outdoors until September at the earliest (due to it being too cold). Not to mention the numerous fungus that are waiting to take advantage of a sick plant too! A fussy plant really.

Unlike some veggies, tomatoes need some work on your part to grow well. You can’t just stick them in the ground and give them water. Here is a short list of what we do with our plants to get the best out of them….

August

  • Dig the soil nice and deep, mixing in  some awesome rotted manure
  • Mulch the surface of the soil to ensure it doesn’t dry out
  • Water the soil weekly if it doesn’t rain
  • Plant the seeds in seedling trays and put them in a nice area to germinate (on top of the hot water system is perfect

September

  • Dig a little hole for each tomato plant in the prepared soil about 40cm apart. We make sure that we plant ours in rows two wide.
  • Plant one or two plants in each hole
  • Make sure that the plant has a shoot growing out the top. Some won’t and will not perform as well.
  • Water each hole regularly (a little bit of water every day for the first week, then move to every second day in the second week)
  • Source stakes for your tomatoes to be tied to along with twine (biodegradable stuff is best)

October

  • Remove any plants that are not performing well. This is an indication that they will be prone to diseases and won’t produce good quality fruit. Compost them.
  • For every 4 plants, dig a well between them that they can share. Fill this with straw or similar to reduce evaporation and start using this for watering (check out the pick below of our capsicums in the foreground and the tomatoes behind them. Most have 4 plants per hole except the last one which has six))
  • Put your stakes in next to each plant (again, see the pic below)
  • Once fruit is starting to show, you will need to net them or apply a pesticide for fruit fly. If you don’t, all your fruit will be inedible and full of squiggling larvae. Blech!
  • Dusting with “Tomato Dust” or “Derris Dust” will help control caterpillars and white fly too. Healthy plants need a helping hand to stay healthy.

November

As your tomato plants grow, they will start throwing off side shoots. When planting your tomatoes in rows like we do, you need to prune off these shoots to ensure that the plant grows nice and straight and produced fruit from the bottom up. This will allow you to have a controlled harvest as the plant will put its strength into fewer fruit, thus creating a better flavoured product. November is all about controlling the growth of the plant, tying them gently to the stakes and watering …. always watering.

From mid November, we start applying more manures into the holes that have the straw in them. As you water into the holes, the manure breaks down slowly and feeds the plants.

If you have cherry tomatoes planted, you will be able to start picking these little guys for your salads by mid November.

December

More watering. More pruning. Rotted compost is applied in mid December … tomatoes are very hungry plants!!!

Harvest starts mid to late December. If you have nice ripe tomatoes for Christmas, you have having an excellent year!

January, February, March, April

Once you start harvesting, you need to keep watering and feeding your tomatoes. Remember to regularly apply the fruit fly pesticide and dust your tomatoes to stop most caterpillar attacks.

As the plants grow up the stakes you have put in, and you have harvested the bottom tomatoes, you can start sliding the tomato plant down the stakes … yes, they will happily keep growing upwards given enough food and water but you want to be able to reach the fruit right? As the stalks from the tomato come in contact with the ground, you’ll notice that they start to grow roots. This is excellent because … you guessed it … nice strong root growth means more awesome tomatoes!!!

Once the weather starts to cool off in April, your tomato plants will start to look “tired” and straggly. After you have harvested the last of your crop, pull them up and compost them, roots and all.

 

Remember not to plant tomatoes in the same place next year as pests and diseases in the soil from this crop will still be there after Winter. Wait at least one year, two is best, before planting tomatoes there again. This is true for ANY vegetable or plant.

 

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