How to train your tomato

By Sally Nex

If you grow vegetables in your garden, I’m willing to bet at least one of them is a tomato.

They’re the best-loved of all home-grown veg: over 60% of us grow them, making them more popular than potatoes and even strawberries. If you need advice for how to make the most out of your plot, why not join Sally Nex in her Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening course and learn how to sustain a year-round harvest.

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How you grow your tomato really matters, though. Tomatoes are fast-growing, lushly leafy plants that need plenty of water: a single plant gets through two litres of water on a sunny day.

You’ll need to give them good, rich soil: double up grow bags on top of each other, or cut them in half widthways across the top and open it out like a pair of saddlebags to plant one tomato in each side. Tomatoes will grow in containers, but make them really large – at least 45cm diameter.

Start to feed your tomatoes as soon as you see flowers appear

Then feed, feed and feed some more. While they’re small, use a general-purpose liquid feed such as liquid seaweed to keep them growing strongly; then as they start flowering switch to high-potassium tomato or comfrey feed. Once a week right through the season should do the trick.

Lastly, but most importantly, most tomatoes need good support. I say most, because some tomatoes grow like bushes (‘bush’ or ‘determinate’ tomatoes) and don’t need any help staying up at all, so it’s important to know which kind you’ve got.

Bush tomatoes need no more than a short cane (most need nothing at all) – and you don’t have to pinch out sideshoots. Look out for ‘Losetto’, which is blight-resistant, and ‘Tumbler’ toms which are ideal for containers. Bush tomatoes tend to be cherry varieties, though, and crop for a shorter amount of time – so if you want larger fruits, borne over months not weeks, grow tomatoes that need training.

These, known as ‘cordon’ or indeterminate tomatoes, just keep growing upwards. They also produce masses of side branches: let these grow and your tomatoes will stage a greenhouse takeover, filling the space with an impenetrable tangle of foliage. Even if you could get inside, you’d find very little fruit.

Pinch out tomato sideshoots as they grow

Curb the plant’s natural inclination towards the green and jungly and pinch out the sideshoots as it grows and you’ll concentrate all that energy on producing fruit instead, giving you a bigger harvest. You’ll also get your greenhouse back, which is a plus.

Most people train their tomatoes as single stems, or cordons, tied into one cane. But I’ve found double cordons give you a much better yield: the fruits are fractionally smaller, but you get many more of them. Here’s how I do it:

You can make eco-friendly grow bags for tomatoes from secondhand hessian sacks

Build your supports

You’ll need two canes at least: one either side of the plant. But a fully-laden tomato plant is a heavy thing, so I build a sturdy grid around my plants: two rows of canes front and back, strategically placed with two canes either side of each plant, bolted together with horizontal canes at 30cm intervals. Short canes across the middle lock the whole thing together

Select your leader

You’ll find one shoot naturally grows upwards at the top of the main stem and is stronger than the rest: this is your leader. Once it’s tall enough, bend this gently to one side and tie it in to a cane.

Select your second leader

Once the plant starts to send out sideshoots, look for one that’s nice and strong, emerging from a leaf joint near the bottom of the plant close to the cane on the opposite side from the one the main leader is tied to. Remove all other sideshoots.

Tie in your tomato plants to supports securely as they grow

Tie in your second leader

Let your selected sideshoot grow on, and once it’s long enough tie it in to the cane, just like the main leader. You’ve now made the framework for your double cordon.

Pinch out sideshoots as the cordons grow

Now start pinching out sideshoots on both leaders as if they were two plants. This is a weekly job in the height of the season: once sideshoots are about 5cm long, simply grasp them with your thumb and forefinger and snap them away. Once the leading shoots reach the greenhouse roof, snip that back, too, so your plants concentrate all their energies on ripening all that juicy, mouthwatering fruit.

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