Beating the market

If you've given up on them due to skyrocketing prices, Zahra Ali can help put fresh tomatoes back in your kitchen!

Beating the market
In Pakistan, many people have already given up on buying tomatoes – thanks to the unbelievable rises in prices. Ever considered growing your own tomatoes?

It is a fact that tomatoes are amongst the most commonly used vegetable across the world. It is worth growing some of your own tomatoes in such space as you have available. You can always maximise the little space that you have and grow an endless supply of tomatoes – right on your balcony.

Luckily, this is just the right time to sow your seeds. All you need to begin planting is some good quality seeds, soil, manure and a container – or a sunny spot in your garden.

Which variety to grow?

Presently, there are 79 types of heirloom tomato varieties in the world. I find it very hard to select tomatoes to grow each year and I end up growing 4 or 5 types of tomatoes each year. Some have become my favourites mainly because they freeze well and make delicious paste and sauces that I can indulge in for a long season. I grow other types for raw eating or grilling.

Tomatoes grow on a vine or a bush. The long vines grow up to 12 feet long and need support in the form of canes or strings are called indeterminate varieties. Those of the bush variety stay low and grow more branches – and are known as determinate. Make a selection based on the space available to you. Both will produce the same.

When it comes to selecting a variety based on its size, however, you have some tough decisions to make! From a tiny grape-sized berry to 500-gram giant beef steak tomatoes, this stunning fruit comes in all sizes. And then there seems to be a wide variety of colours available, too. We all have seen only red tomatoes but nature offers us pink, white, yellow, orange, black, purple, green and even combinations of contrasting colours in one fruit.

One can always keep growing tomatoes for their stunning display value and wide range of uses, but besides the visual treat, one has to consider growing tomatoes to feed their families. There is nothing better than homegrown organic food.

Here are some varieties that are best for making pastes and storing.

  1. Amish Paste tomato is considered the ultimate paste-making tomato. This takes 80 days to produce fruit and its delicious flavor-filled flesh is perfect for cooking, canning and freezing.

  2. Martino’s Roma tomato is popular for its high yields and richly flavoured plum-shaped tomatoes. The compact plants need less support and also show resistance to early blight. The fruits weigh 2-3 oz and have very few seeds – making them ideal as paste tomatoes.

  3. Money Maker tomato is another well-known type that produces fruits that are of 4-6 oz and are ready in 75-80 days. This is an old English heirloom variety with deep red-coloured fruits that are of very high quality.

In case you love tomatoes raw as tiny colorful globes in your salad or between your grilled seafood, poultry or meat cubes on a skewer, you can go for the cherry and grape types.

  1. Napa Rose Bush is a very pretty pink-coloured tomato that grows in clusters of many tiny tomatoes. These are ready in just 65-70 days.

  2. Black cherry is a dusky purple-black tomato that gets only 1 inch big. It is indeterminate and keeps producing throughout the season.

  3. Cherry Roma is in a winner when it comes to high yields and excellent taste. Be warned: this is an addictive tomato with a sweet and spicy flavour. It works brilliantly in salads and can also be dried well.

  4. Currant Gold Rush is a bright yellow tomato – 1/4 inch in size. The delicious fruits grow in trusses of 10-12 and take up to 80 days to be ready on their vines.

Sowing, Planting and Aftercare

Sow the seeds in trays or in pots. Personally, I use one part each of peat moss, organic compost and sand in my seedling trays. These help in easy transplanting later on. You can use a mixture of sand and manure as well – with a ratio of 3:1 for seedlings.

Prepare your seedling soil mix and fill up a seedling tray or a terracotta pot. Water and wait for it to drain. Now put a seed in each pocket of the tray and in case of pots, spread seeds at distances of 2 inches – do not overcrowd your pot. Cover lightly with the soil mix and water once again, gently. Keep these in full sun.

Once the seedlings appear in about 8-10 days, make sure the soil doesn’t stay dry. Water only when the soil gets dried. Wait for another week or two for at least 2 more sets of leaves to grow. Now you can transplant for seedlings in the evening when it is not hot.

Prepare a 12-inch pot with 1:1:1 ratio of manure or compost, sand and peat moss or coconut husk. This will make a soil mix that has good drainage, enough organic matter to feed tomatoes and also good water retention to minimise watering. Remember, each plant will need a 12-inch pot to grow, while some large fruiting varieties may need a bigger container. If you are growing these on a piece of land, keep a distance of 12 inches between each plant.

For indeterminate varieties, you need to install a cane or some kind of a support to keep the vines growing upwards without falling down. Remove the bottom leaves – once you see fruits forming, this will ensure that the plant is focusing all its efforts in producing fruits and not nourishing leaves. I personally find it hard to do because I love its green foliage but if you keep these large leaves, the vines become crowded and provide shade and moisture for many bugs to live in. On the other hand, determinate varieties can be grown in hanging baskets, too – where they make for an eyecatching display.

Alongside tomatoes

Tomatoes grow beautifully in containers and pair well with basil, parsley, peppers, eggplants, carrots and sweet corn. Planting marigolds, garlic, chives and onions along your tomato patch will discourage pest attacks on your crop.

Be warned: you might be tempted to cut open a tomato that you have and plant its seeds but stop! Although, it is actually this simple to plant tomatoes from seeds, sadly we cannot grow from store-brought fruits for two reasons.

First, we do not know if the variety is heirloom or not. Only heirlooms grow true to the parent plants. Most of the crops grown these days are hybrid, which requires buying seeds each time. We will look at these matters in detail soon.

Second, even to save seeds from heirloom tomatoes, the flowers are protected from pollinators that might cause cross-pollination.

So it is best to invest in heirloom seeds that you can save and grow during the next season.

Zahra Ali is a sustainability educator, writer and environmentalist. She blogs at Send in questions about gardening to