Tomatoes are a homestead staple. Their bright red fruit and distinctive smell are the truest signs of summer.
Tomatoes are low in calories and provide important nutrients such as vitamin C and potassium. They’re also rich in antioxidants–lycopene is linked to several benefits, such as a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
The tomatoes that we grow are the indeterminate heirloom varieties “Chadwick”–for our cherries, and “Ruby”–for our traditional toms, an old Bulgarian tomato renowned for its early and productive fruiting and good flavor.
Note: Tomatoes come in both ‘determinate’ and ‘indeterminate’ varieties.
Determinate plants grow to a certain point and then stop, whereas indeterminate plants keep growing and growing, producing fruit all season until killed by the winter frost.
To achieve the longest growing season possible –which for us can extend into December– we sow our tomatoes seeds indoors in early January, in trays of homemade compost in a heated poly tunnel.
Seeds usually take 7-14 days to germinate at a soil temperature of around 70F (21C). Warmer could see the seeds sprout in well-under a week, but temperatures of 50F (10C) will likely drag germination out to well-over a month.
We pot on our young tomato plants as soon as they’re big enough to be handled, transplanting into bigger pots of homemade compost, stems relatively deep.
Before transplanting, we make sure to acclimatize the plants first.
This simply means moving the pots outside (out of the polytunnel) during the day in order to ready the plants for the cooler temperatures and also allow the stems to strengthen in the breeze.
We transplant our toms out once they’ve reach 6 inches (15 cm) in height and the threat of frost has passed.
We plant the stems deeply in rich, organic compost so that just the first set of leaves are above the soil line.
Unlike most plants, tomatoes can handle being buried deeply, they prefer it — tomato plants are capable of sprouting roots from the stems (that’s what those fine hairs are, roots), and a strongly developed root system equals a healthy plant and, in turn, an increased chance of a high yield.
Depending on the variety (cherries or regular), we plant our tomatoes 14-22 inches (35-55 cm) apart.
Tomato plants require supports (unless growing a bush variety), and to save time, space and cost, we grow our tomatoes up the wire fences that surround our main vegetable patches, which seems to works great.
Key jobs including keeping the bed free of weeds, to save soil nutrients etc., and also watering, of course.
A natural mulch, such as decaying leaves, can help with both of these tasks. Mulch also brings the added bonus of warming the bed (if not applied too early as this runs the risk of locking in winter’s cold).
Tomatoes have grown best for us when watered on a strict schedule.
‘Blossom end rot’ is a common garden physiological disorder, apparently caused by a lack of calcium within the plant. It can occur in pepper, squash, cucumber, and melon fruits as well as tomatoes. We have found blossom end rot to only come on when the plant is stressed, rather than a lack of calcium in the soil. Growing our fruits and vegetables in rich soils with a regular watering schedule eradicated ALL diseases-related issues.
To achieve regular watering, we have run irrigation pipe around the perimeter of our fencing, under the mulch. Using this system, we water thoroughly once a day during the height of the summer when temps regularly exceed 40C (104F). Drip irrigation, i.e. watering directly to the roots, avoids any issues with leaf blight, too.
As the saying goes, water the soil not the leaves.
Tomato ‘suckers’ are small shoots that sprout out from where the stem and the branch of a tomato plant meet:
Suckers are actually detrimental to the plant, drawing energy away and decreasing tomato growth. But they are an added bonus to the homestead. Once picked, suckers can be re-planted and grown into true to type plants, producing fruit of their own.
We use suckers to double our tomato patch (and so yield) without having to put the extra effort into sowing twice as many seeds in early-January — and the acclimatizing and potting on that this would also entail.
Depending on the variety and growing conditions, tomatoes will be ready to pick after 50-90 days (from transplanting). For a sweeter taste, we harvest a 7-14 days after turning the a tom has turned red–if we can wait.
Refrigerated tomatoes (with good air circulation) should last two weeks. Those left on the side will often perish within just a few days. A root cellar or the like will also buy you a few weeks.
Tomatoes can be frozen, though you’ll want to blanch them first.
To do this, cut away the stem scar and surrounding area and discard it. Dip the tomatoes in boiling water for 1 minute or until the skins split to peel easier. Place the whole tomatoes on a baking sheet (or the like) and freeze.
I have also experimented with preserving fresh tomatoes in wood ash, and achieved four months, five at a stretch.
I only preserved just-picked tomatoes free from blemishes which were on the verge of ripeness, not soft/overripe.
I carefully layered the tomatoes in a wooden box, alternating between a thick layer of ash and a layer of tomatoes, making sure that the fruit wasn’t ever touching.
Simple, and while I wasn’t hold out much hope, successful.
For tips on seed-saving tomatoes, click the link below:
Also, check out our super simple homemade (and homegrown) tomato soup recipe: