Staking is best done early on so as not to damage established root systems. Plastic or wire cages can be bought, or you can use trusty old wooden tomato stakes – although keep in mind wood can harbor disease, so don’t use the old ones if you had problems last year. Tie the plants to the stakes with a soft or flexible tie. This helps you take control of the plant. Once a seedling bends over, you can never get that bend out of the stem, so early training makes a big difference later on.
Although some people never prune tomato plants, trends have seen people pruning plants more. The side shoots between the shade leaf and the stem are removed so as to produce just one or two leaders. The second leader is usually the one below the first flower truss. Pinch the side shoots out if only young, or snip them out if they are bigger. Once there are signs of fruit, many people are also reducing some of the leaf canopy, with the theory that there is more energy to concentrate on the fruit.
Chicken manure is high in nitrogen and is great to dig in initially as it promotes leaf growth. Used too much later on, you will get soft leafy branches, with few tomatoes. Once the plants are above knee high and starting to flower, you are better off using a fertilizer high in potassium (K) and calcium. Debco Tomato Food is good for this. Put two teaspoons in a nine litre watering can and water in every two weeks or as required. Lush plants will be nice and green whereas hungry plants will be a lighter green, yellow, or even purple in colour if they are lacking in particular nutrients.
Watering at even intervals will make a huge difference to tomato yields. Every 2 to 3 days during cooler weather and every day during hot weather. Water earlier in the day, and keep the leaves dry to prevent bacterial problems. These bacterial specs can actually result from dirt splashing up and onto the plants, so maybe water with the pressure turned down a little. Some of the weaker varieties like Yellow Pear may even need a copper spray to get over a bacterial problem. Pinch the branches off where the bacterial spots are, and then wash your hands before handling the plants further. This year we have also seen a few plants where the plant tie halfway down the plant has rubbed off the main stem’s skin and exposed this area of the plant to a black or brown bacterial disease. This can happen to the young seedlings in particularly windy conditions. In bad cases, we should destroy these plants. It gets back to watering – do not over water young seedlings early on in the growing season.
Tomatoes can also be grown successfully in pots. Choose a pot at least 30cm in diameter and fill with potting mix. Put a saucer under the pot so as to have an extra reservoir of water for those weekends when you are away. There are also varieties more suited to pot growing including Pot Prize, Super Prize, Tumbler, dwarf roma and the new Cherry Fountain from Oasis.
Some of my favourites include Truss Plum, Mighty Red, Sweet Grape, Mr Ugly and the heirlooms Tigerella and Green Zebra.
The final thing we need on our side is some nice warm 25 degree days in January and February. This will really get them fruiting, and means a big difference between a poor crop and a bumper crop. Like all horticultural pursuits, this is out of our control and in the lap of the gods. Is it all worth it ? What have we urban farmers got to lose – not much. What we have to gain, is the joy of picking a fresh tomato, taking it inside and putting it on top of a salada biscuit with a little pepper, and eating it with a lot of satisfaction. Good luck to us all !