Hailing from the Americas, originally thought to be poisonous and saddled with the unwieldy botanical name Lycopersicon esculentum, the tomato is now used worldwide and is an almost indispensable part of meal preparation in many South African homes.
Low in calories and rich in vitamins A and C, potassium and iron, it is well worth the effort to grow your own. Not only will you have access to the freshest tomatoes available but you will also have more choice because you can plant both the well-known ‘heirlooms’ and the new hybrids.
Preparing to plant
Don’t worry if you have limited space, as many types of tomato will grow happily in window boxes and containers. Soil preparation is the key to a bumper crop – include generous amounts of well decomposed manure and compost and, because tomatoes flourish in conditions with low nitrogen, high phosphorous and moderate potassium, incorporate a complete fertiliser. The plants like an almost neutral (6.5 to 7.0) pH level, so regulate high acidity levels with a sprinkling of agricultural lime in late autumn.
Germinating seeds and planting out
Ideally, one should germinate tomatoes in seedling mix and allow them to grow on in the mix for 3 to 5 weeks. Keep the seedlings in a warm, sheltered spot and keep the mix moist. Wait until the weather warms and soil temperatures rise before you plant them out – they should be 15 to 20 centimetres tall with the roots developing well by this point. They will require well-prepared soil that drains freely, several hours of sunlight each day and protection from wind. Plant them with the lower leaves just above ground level. As a general rule, 75cm spacing should be sufficient (but if you want to be precise refer to the seed packet – it will have details of that particular variety’s growth habits). If you are planting several rows leave 1.5m-wide paths between the rows.
Caring for the plants
Irrigate the newly-moved tomatoes generously, and continue with regular, deep watering. Mulching with straw, grass clippings or compost retains moisture in the soil and discourages weeds. The seedlings develop rapidly, so the important job of staking should be done sooner rather than later. Stakes offer support, particularly during fruiting, and improve crop yield and quality. Use sturdy wooden, bamboo or metal poles which are at least 1.5 metres tall. Place the stakes 15cm from each tomato plant’s base to avoid disturbing the roots. Once the plants begin to spread, secure them to the stakes using soft cord or twine. Leave some slack, so you don’t impede growth or damage the stems.
It takes about six to eight weeks for a fertilised flower to develop into a mature fruit. Depending on the cultivar, the ripe tomato could be yellow, orange or any one of many shades of red. The flavour and nutrient content of tomatoes are best if they are allowed to ripen on the plant. If necessary they can be picked whilst still green and wrapped in newspaper and stored in a cupboard; they will ripen slowly, giving one fresh tomatoes for weeks. Green tomatoes can also be eaten. A recipe for fried green tomatoes, a dish made famous by Fannie Flagg’s best-selling book and later the movie, follows elsewhere in the article.
Tomato plants are classified by their growth habits
•Determinate types (also called ‘bush varieties’) stop growing at a specific height, bear a full crop and then die back. Look for ‘Checha’ – it is flavoursome and has an excellent shelf-life, and ‘Zeal’, which is tasty, richly-coloured and a reliable grower.
•Indeterminate types are more vine-like, continuing to spread until frost kills them. Try ‘Hotstuff’, which is large, fleshy and adapted for cooler conditions or ‘Zest’, which is a vigorous grower with excellent taste and disease resistance.
•Semi-determinate types reach a point when they stop growing, but they produce a second crop. The ever-popular ‘Rodade’ grows well in many areas, and bears fruit of gorgeous colour and flavour.