Ask a Tomato Expert: Q & A With Jason Johns
August 16, 2019
The Garden Culture team recently came across a book for anyone as intrigued by growing tomatoes as we are. It’s called Growing Tomatoes: Your Guide to Growing Delicious Tomatoes at Home.
Who doesn’t want to grow beautiful tomatoes at home? So we had a chat with author Jason Johns to learn more. Happy reading!
Why did you choose to write a book about tomatoes
I’ve now grown tomatoes for years in everything from grow bags to greenhouses to the ground and think they are a wonderful plant to get people excited about growing their own produce. I wrote the book to share my passion and, hopefully, to help people avoid the common problems people have with tomato plants.
I love growing plants, particularly vegetables, and tomatoes were the first plant I grew. Many years ago, I bought one of those ‘grow your own’ tomato kits that comes with a packet of seeds, some soil, and a mini greenhouse. Being a complete novice at the time, I dutifully followed the instructions and was mildly horrified to discover 48 seeds germinated out of a packet of 50! Everyone I knew was gifted with tomato plants, and I still had over 20 left which I put in my mother’s greenhouse. They grew out of control and started to come out of the roof, but still produced some tomatoes. I had created my first tomato jungle and decided I needed to know more about them.
Many gardeners lovingly refer to their tomato crops as their ‘babies’; why do you think we’re so fascinated with this fruit?
We have a long history with tomatoes. I believe their cultivation dates back to the Mayans, Incas, and their predecessors and some estimates are that humans have been eating tomatoes for over 10,000 years, possibly longer!
Tomatoes tend to be where most people have their first growing experience, and there is something magical about seeing a tomato grow and the fruit ripen. Homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than the artificially ripened tomatoes we buy in the stores.
I also think we have an attraction to tomatoes because of their color. I remember the first time I saw a yellow tomato – I was amazed by them and couldn’t wait to grow them myself. Then, of course, I discovered all the other colored tomatoes, and there was no stopping me!
There are so many tomato varieties out there; what are some of your personal favorites to grow?
Some of the tomatoes I like to grow include:
* Sungold – a mid-sized yellow tomato
* Tumbling Tom Yellow – a small, yellow, cherry tomato that grows well in hanging baskets (there is a red variety too)
* Tigerella – a mid-sized striped tomato
* Mortgage Lifter – a giant, red tomato
* Yellow Stuffer – a giant yellow tomato
* Roma – a red plum tomato
* Black Russian – a mid-sized black tomato
I like to experiment and tend to grow at least one new variety every year, so I can try something new. They are always producing new varieties, and some of them are surprisingly nice! I try to choose heritage seeds rather than F1 types as it means I can save the seeds from the plants I grow. I prefer the taste of heritage seeds, but F1 seeds are good if you want large yields or need disease resistance.
Tomato plants grow to be so big; is it a realistic crop choice for city-dwellers?
The indeterminate or vining tomatoes will grow large if left to their own devices. They continue to grow until they are killed off by frost. However, if you pinch the side shoots off and then pinch the growing tip off the plant when it has 3 to 5 trusses (levels) of flowers, then it can be maintained at a manageable size.
It is definitely a good crop for city dwellers because there are so many varieties and there is something suitable for every environment.
Bush tomatoes grow into a bush and are much more manageable, so do not grow out of control.
You can even get tumbling tomatoes that will grow in hanging baskets and produce huge crops of fruit!
So, no matter how much space you have, there is a type of tomato you can grow, even if you live in the middle of a city!
Can you share one of your more unfortunate experiences while growing tomatoes and how you coped with it?
I have been fortunate with tomatoes most years as I’ve learned to give them good air circulation and keep them well-watered, but I have had issues in the past.
When I first grew tomatoes outside (I normally grow them in a greenhouse due to our poor climate in the UK), I planted them near some potatoes. Unfortunately, the potatoes caught blight which was then transferred to the tomatoes.
Sadly, there was nothing I could do to save the plants as the weather was perfect for blight. I lost my entire crop that year of both potatoes and tomatoes and learned that the two should not be grown near each other. They are both members of the nightshade family (as are bell peppers and eggplants) and are susceptible to similar diseases. Since then, I’ve always grown my tomatoes under glass to protect them from blight and kept them well away from potatoes!
It’s easy to get carried away when planting seedlings. Realistically, how many tomato plants would a family of four need?
That is very hard to say as we could say, how many would they need to feed them throughout the growing season or how many to feed them throughout the year? It also depends on how much work you are willing to do preserving the tomatoes.
The fruit on bush tomatoes tends to ripen all at once, or at least within a week of each other, so you have a glut that needs preserving. Indeterminate or vining tomatoes ripen gradually, so are better suited for picking and eating. Tomatoes can be preserved through canning or making into sauces (I make a pasta sauce from my excess tomatoes and freeze it).
A half dozen to a dozen tomato plants will keep you in fresh tomatoes easily throughout the growing season, depending on how much you like tomatoes! I like to grow some beefsteak tomatoes, some cherry tomatoes, and some regular tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes obviously produce much higher yields than the beefsteak tomatoes, though the beefsteak is much larger.
I really like growing different colored tomatoes, and I find a selection of yellow, orange, striped, green, red and black make for some fantastic salads! Of course, if you are growing to make tomato paste or pasta sauce, then you are better suited for a plum tomato like Roma.
If you want to grow enough to can to keep you throughout the year, then you will need a couple of dozen or more plants.
It comes down to available space and what else you are growing as to how many you can grow. Even if you grow one or two plants, you will still have a good amount of fresh tomatoes and this is a great way to introduce children to growing stuff; it can even encourage them to eat tomatoes! If your space is limited, look at a tumbling tomato variety and grow them in baskets fixed to the wall – it’s a great way to make the most of the space available to you.
What is your number one piece of advice to gardeners choosing to grow tomatoes?
Narrowing it down to just one piece of advice is tricky as there are so many things to say. I think the best advice I would offer is to pick a variety of tomato that you like and is suitable for the area you live in. Some people in colder areas try to grow long season tomatoes and struggle to get them to ripen. If you live in an area with a short growing season, buy a tomato variety that matures quickly as you are much more likely to get fruit off it.
Start the plant off indoors early in the year, and keep it warm until you can plant it out. Repot it regularly, so it doesn’t run out of space and remember to pinch off the side shoots too! Almost down to one piece of advice there! 🙂
Finally, if you harvested a bunch of tomatoes right now, what would you make with them?
Hmmm, a whole bunch of them would probably be eaten with the lettuce, beetroot, radishes, and carrots I’m growing as a salad. The beefsteak tomatoes would probably be stuffed and baked, and any others would be made into a pasta sauce as my 12-year-old son is obsessed with making pasta dishes at the moment!