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The ripe stuff

How to grow the best tomatoes you've ever tasted

Nothing says summer like juicy tomatoes, so it’s no wonder they top the list of edibles we love to grow. Even people who don’t fuss with other vegetables often tuck a couple of tomato plants in the garden. And what’s not to love? Small as grapes or heftier than baseballs, tomatoes are bursting with nutrients and slim on calories. Plus, they’re a cinch to grow. Here’s what you need to know to enjoy the best tomatoes you’ll ever taste: yours.

Grow-it-yourself basics

Buy Choose plants about 20 centimetres tall with dark green leaves. Avoid ones with fruit and flowers already growing: it’s better if the plants develop a solid root system in the ground or pot before they start to flower, otherwise the fruit may disappoint. Expect to pay about $2 for a medium-size plant.

Prepare Wait until the danger of frost is past (when night temperatures are consistently above 10C), then plant in soil enriched with compost or well-rotted manure.

Plant Place plant in hole. Pack soil around roots. Add water. If plant is tall or leggy, dig a deeper hole. Cover the stem up to the first leaves for stronger root systems. Set plants 60 to 90 centimetres apart and in rows one to 1.5 metres apart. Want to grow tomatoes in pots? Find pot-friendly varieties and planting tips in Terrific picks .

Water Cover soil with a five-centimetre layer of straw to keep the soil evenly moist and discourage weeds from growing. Aim for consistent moisture levels. If it doesn’t rain, pour seven to eight litres of water (two full-sized watering cans) per plant per week.

Fertilize Follow the label directions on the fertilizer package. Commercial fertilizers formulated for tomatoes have more phosphorus (to promote flowering and fruit) and less nitrogen and potassium. Organic options include fish emulsions and seaweed or kelp fertilizers. Add the recommended amount of fertilizer once a week or dilute it and give a small dose of fertilizer with daily watering.

Harvest For maximum flavour, allow fruit to ripen fully on the vine, then pick when still firm but colour has changed to red, yellow or orange, depending on the variety.

Lending support

Staking plants or growing them in cages helps keep fruit off the ground, where it can rot or be nibbled on by pesky insects.

To stake Pound stake into soil when you plant. Use a 1.5-metre stake pounded 30 centimetres into the ground.

Tie plant to stake with garden string and add more ties as plant grows taller. Prune plants frequently to limit growth to a single main stem to help fruit grow larger and ripen earlier.

To cage Place a wire tomato cage (available at garden centres) around each plant and push into ground. Put the cage in place when planting – wrestling a cage over a mature plant is difficult!

Some commercial cages are made of light wire that’s not strong enough to support a mature plant laden with fruit. Add extra support by tying the tomato cage to a stake in the ground.

Container-garden basics

Given a sunny wind-sheltered spot and regular watering and fertilizing, most tomato varieties will thrive in pots. Larger containers – bushel baskets, clay pots or wooden half-barrels – are ideal for large tomato plants. But if container space is limited, choose compact varieties bred for container growing (see Terrific picks ).

Mix Use a soilless mix sold as patio or container mix. For added richness, combine two-thirds soilless mix with one-third bagged, well-rotted cattle manure.

Support Stake with three bamboo sticks tied together at the top to make a tripod over the plant. Prune regularly so your plant will be easier to support.

Water Check containers daily and water thoroughly until excess flows out through drainage hole. During hot spells, you may have to water twice a day.

Fertilize Add water-soluble fertilizer once a week with a low first (nitrogen) number, such as 5-10-10 or 5-20-20. Or add timed-release fertilizer in conjunction with a biweekly water-soluble fertilizer.

Terrific picks

Cherry

Yellow Pear

Look & taste Pear-shaped with firm skin. Sweet-tasting and less acidic than most other tomatoes.
Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Stake or cage if necessary. Ripens in about 65 days.
Good for Salads, sauces, pop-in-your-mouth snacks or roasted in the oven.

Supersweet 100

Look & taste Crack-resistant fruit that grows about one inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. Very sweet.
Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Stake or cage. Ripens in 60 days
Good for Salads, sauces or roasted.

Container size

Tiny Tim

Look & taste Cherry-sized fruit with sweet flavour.
Grow-how Grow in soilless mix in small pots or window boxes. Water daily and fertilize weekly. Ripens in 60 days. Determinate plant.
Good for Salads or snacks.

Patio hybrid

Look & taste Larger than cherry tomatoes, but the plant is container-size (60 centimetres tall). Good balance of acidity and sweetness.
Grow-how Grow in soilless mix in a 30-centimetre-diameter pot. Water daily and fertilize weekly. Ripens in 60 days. Determinate.
Good for Snacks or roasted.

Medium size

First Lady

Look & taste Smooth crack-resistant skin. Sweet-tasting. Disease-resistant.
Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Stake or cage. Continues to fruit over a long period of time. Ripens in 60 days.
Good for Sandwiches, salads, cooking or canning.

Jet Star

Look & taste Crack-resistant skin. Well-balanced meaty fruit that’s not too sweet, not too acidic.
Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Stake or cage. Ripens in 72 days.
Good for Sandwiches, slicing or cooking (low in acid, so not good for canning).

Beefsteak

Super Marmande

Look & taste Large, juicy irregular-shaped fruit with rich flavour.

Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Cage or tie to stake and prune plant to one main stem. Ripens in 62 days.
Good for Sandwiches, salads or cooking.

Big Beef

Look & taste Large, smooth, meaty flavourful fruit. Disease-resistant.
Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Stake or cage for best results. Ripens in 73 days.
Good for Sandwiches, salads or cooking.

Plum

Viva Italia

Look & taste Deep red, elongated oval fruit with solid flesh. High sugar content. Ample acid and sweetness.
Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Cage or stake. Ripens in 75 days. Determinate.
Good for Canning, freezing, sauces or salsa

San Marzano

Look & taste Bright red pear-shaped fruit with mild flavour. Excellent for sauces because it’s not watery and has few seeds.
Grow-how Plant 60 to 90 centimetres apart. Cage or stake. Ripens in 80 days.
Good for Canning, freezing or tomato paste or purée.