Sweet and small, but big on flavour.
Cherry tomatoes! The name says it all: they’re small and super-sweet, bite-sized like cherries, and packed with flavour.
In every tomato-lovers garden there should be at least one bush of cherry tomatoes. That is usually enough, because cherry tomatoes are incredibly prolific producers.
For gardeners in frost-free subtropical areas, now is the time to plant cherry tomatoes. In most other regions, cherry tomatoes are planted at the end of spring or early summer.
Cherry tomatoes are generally more disease resistant than large-fruit tomatoes, especially to fungal diseases like verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt as well as tobacco mosaic virus, which stunts plants and affects the yield.
The growing variety of cherry tomatoes includes currant types, mini-Roma types, yellow and red pear-shaped minis, as well as those with dark red, almost black, fruit and cascading varieties for growing in hanging baskets.
Vine or bush?
Despite their small fruit, most cherry tomatoes are vigorous vine (indeterminate) varieties that can grow metres high and wide. A single plant can produce kilograms of fruit throughout summer until stopped by frost or cold.
Plants need to be staked or supported and pruned, to keep their growth neat and produce better-quality fruit.
A common mistake for first-time growers is not allowing enough space per plant – the general rule is 1.2m between plants. When plants are too close together there is less air movement, which makes it easier for fungal diseases and whiteflies to thrive.
Bush (determinate) varieties of cherry tomatoes are less work, but the range is not as large. Mostly available as patio varieties, their compact growth makes them suitable for containers. They produce a fixed number of tomatoes and upward growth stops when they reach a certain height.
Varieties include ‘Sweet ‘n Neat Scarlet’ (slightly larger cherry), ‘Little Napoli’ (mini-Roma) and micro-dwarf ‘Window Box Red’ (slightly larger cherry).
Getting the basics right
- Cherry tomatoes need full sun or plenty of morning sun, and fertile, compost-enriched soil that drains well. For a balance of nutrients add an organic fertiliser that includes essential micro-elements as well as the basic nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, such as Atlantic Bio Ganic All Purpose or Wonder Vita-Boost.
- When planting out seedlings, sink them into the soil up to their first leaf. This helps to establish good roots.
- Water regularly at root level to avoid wetting the leaves – flood watering is best. Make a ‘dam’ around the plant to assist in this. A deep mulch with straw or leaves keeps the soil moist. Increase watering when the plants start to flower.
- Remove the lower leaves when they start to turn yellow. This also helps with air circulation.
- If the soil was enriched before planting it is only necessary to fertilise when the tomatoes start to flower.
Determinate varieties don’t need pruning, but side-shoots must be regularly removed, as well as the shoots below the first flower cluster.
Indeterminate varieties need pruning, otherwise they become monsters. If not nipped out, suckers or secondary shoots develop into main stems that sprout more new shoots. The result can be a huge, sprawling plant that is hard to manage, is more susceptible to pests and diseases, and may produce masses of small, poor-quality fruit.
Maintaining a single-stem or two-stem vine is easier to train and support, is healthier and produces sweeter, larger fruit that ripens faster.
How to prune
The pruning itself is quite simple: retain one or at most two stems. Remove all the branches below the first cluster of flowers. This prevents possible soil pathogens splashing up and infecting the leaves higher up when the plant is watered.
Pinch out the new suckers or side shoots as soon as you see them. Make sure that there are enough leaves to cover the tomatoes to prevent the sun from scorching them.
Don’t prune or work on the tomato plant when the leaves are wet because it could spread fungal spores.
Pest and disease control
The best way to do this is culturally. In other words, plant in healthy, fertile soil. Make sure plants receive enough sun, and prevent a dense leaf cover through pruning so that leaves dry off faster after rainfall. Should whitefly become a problem, spray intensively with an organic insecticide for the first two weeks, then weekly after that until whitefly is no longer a problem.
Cherry tomatoes are tastiest and sweetest if allowed to ripen on the bush. If the fruit in a cluster doesn’t all ripen at once, pick the ripest fruit individually, leaving the rest to turn red in their own time. Plants actually thrive if this is done once or twice a week. Properly ripe cherry tomatoes need only a gentle tug to be released from the cluster.
Tasty ways with cherry tomatoes
Cherry tomatoes are the ultimate snack food, and many don’t ever make it to the kitchen. Those that do can be used in countless ways: roasted or chopped fresh and added to pasta, as toppings for pizza, cut in half and tossed into salads, with chicken, fish and vegetable dishes – the possibilities are endless. If there is a glut, cook and blitz them with a blender (to break down the skins) as a tomato sauce for freezing. Freeze in small portions for adding to soups, stews, gravies and any other dish in winter.
Kathy Varney’s tips for growing tomatoes
Kathy Varney, Marketing and Product Manager for Ball Straathof, knows a thing or two about plants and growing your own. Here are some of her ideas on tomatoes to help you get started.
A lack of space is no longer an issue when it comes to growing your own tomatoes, as the expanding range of patio veggies makes it possible to grow compact varieties of tomatoes in pots or small spaces.
Tomatoes grown in pots have some easy-to-meet basic needs. Start off by using a good quality potting soil that drains well, and choose well-sized pots, bearing in mind that the smaller the pot is, the faster it dries out. When growing in containers and hanging baskets, it’s best to water daily. Plants need food too, so feed them every so often with a liquid fertiliser. Your tomatoes will love full sun (or at least plenty of morning sun), and make sure you don’t place your pots against a hot, west-facing wall. If you see pests trying to get at your tomatoes before you get to enjoy them, deal with them swiftly using an organic insecticide.
The range of compact tomatoes available today are as tasty as heirlooms, are easy to grow, more disease resistant, very productive and are great for hanging baskets too.
Grab a packet of Kirchhoffs tomatoes at your local garden centre, or visit www.gropak.co.za to order some unique tomatoes online.