Harvesting tomato plants is one of the great joys of summer – and eating fruit straight off the plant gives you that perfect combination of flavour and juiciness.
Some plants are more productive than others – so how much you can harvest them is hugely variable. Some varieties only crop in a crescendo in late summer: all or nothing.
With several widely-available varieties though – and a bit of considerate plant care – you can repeat-harvest tomatoes from late June right through to late November!
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How Do I Chose The Right Tomato Plants?
Depending on your choice of tomato – you can almost certainly improve your harvest by taking some key steps along the way. Doing things right can mean that you can harvest your tomato plants every week for 6 months of the year or more.
The most important decision is to choose a variety that is heavy cropping in the first place. Some varieties can produce huge trusses (fruit-laden branches) and others usually just around 10-12 tomatoes on each truss.
Yet more varieties grow like bunches of grapes and can produce many kilos of fruit in one summer. Finally, some – including many plum tomatoes – might only give you a handful of juicy fruit after a whole season of love and care.
Understanding Pollination & Your Growing Season
Also vital is your pollination technique. Just like all fruits – the flowers need to be pollinated before you will see any fruit (each flower becoming an individual tomato). Luckily all tomatoes are self-pollinating – which means the tiny yellow flowers do all the hard work themselves.
All they need are the right conditions (fresh warm gently-moving air) to be very effective on their own.
Extremes of temperature and humidity are the only things that can work against you. If the flowers are too hot and/or too humid the pollen can’t move within the flower and so fruit might not set (the flowers will just die off).
Too cold a temperature will damage or entirely kill the plant itself, and too low a humidity will not only stress the plant, but also prevent pollination.
All species have their own growing season too, and some are very precise about timings. Always check the planting instructions for your area before germinating so that you aren’t planting too late or too early.
For example, many heirloom varieties don’t start fruiting until very late in the season. So if you are planting them outside in more northerly locations – you could be cutting their season too short.
Tomatoes don’t ripen if it is too cold – and could become blighted (turn black and rot off) if they get too wet.
However, whatever the plant variety – once they stop producing flowers – they will stop producing tomatoes.
Enhance Your Growing Season
Depending on the variety – you can germinate your plants in a greenhouse or similar as early as February – giving them a head start on the season.
Tomato plants won’t survive a frost – so can’t go outside until all chance of this has passed. By bringing early croppers on like this can mean that if you are using grow bags or raised beds inside, you could see tomatoes as early as 8-12 weeks from planting.
However if your greenhouse isn’t in full sun before then, it would be best to wait. Light-deprived plants will stretch out when young and get ‘leggy’. These overly-tall plants won’t support their fruit as well later on in the season and will need more artificial support.
Most people start their tomatoes in late March or April – when conditions get better and can start eating their first tomatoes in June or July. Pairing up an early and a later cropper (6+ of each plant) can mean that you could still be harvesting tomatoes until the end of the year.
Choosing at least 2 different varieties also means that you can use your season more wisely. Having a stretched out pollination season means that you can harvest fresh tomatoes every week keeping your kitchen stocked up and fresh.
There are only a few weeks of the season where both might be super cropping – but that is what your freezer is for. Who doesn’t love a home-made home-grown creamy soup on a winter’s day?
How To Improve The Health Of Your Tomato Plants
Additionally – looking after the plants themselves can increase your harvest time – as without the plant being dry and well fed – you won’t support a generous enough crop. Keep your tomato plants widely spaced – at least a foot apart – and support strongly with a well sunk-in cane or overhead string.
Tomato plants are very fragile and don’t react well to low air flow or damp patches – so trim back any leaves that touch a neighbouring plant.
Water from below to keep the leaves dry and to prevent the worst of the damp – but also because concentrated sunlight can burn the leaves.
Ideally, check your plants thoroughly every week and remove any parts that look darker than normal or are drying off. Not only does this reduce disease, but takes extra weight off the plant later in the season and allows the nutrients to be concentrated in the healthy parts.
Also, always check and prune your indoor tomato plants first – as blight is easily transferred on moist gloves and leaves. Your inside plants are least likely to be affected by most types of blight as it is a windborne infection – and they are shielded well. Last thing you want to do is bring it in to them yourself – after battling with your plants outside first.
Extending Your Crop Even Further
It is possible to ripen your tomatoes off the plant – especially towards the end of the season. If you were lucky enough to have a heavy cropper growing late in the season you will potentially have a heavy crop of green tomatoes waiting on the plant – but have run out of ‘warm’ to ripen them.
So, many people cut off all the remaining green tomato laden trusses in October or as late as November in a sunny greenhouse. They bring them indoors and do one of 2 things:
- Pop them in a dark drawer on a sheet of baking paper, or inside a paper bag, with a banana skin and check weekly. The chemicals released from the ripening banana skin will be absorbed by the tomatoes and trigger them to ripen fully within a few weeks. Just as tasty as if they were still on the plant!
- Place them all (unwashed) in a well-draining tray in a warm sunny place indoors and wait. They won’t ‘go off’ and, if rotated will all ripen in their own time – enough for a handful a day or thereabouts throughout the whole winter. People report eating fresh tomatoes up to 2 months after cutting them off the plant.
Imagine eating fresh home-grown tomatoes in January! Wow.