Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Growing Tomatoes (joehewitt.com)
160 points by siong1987 on April 2, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 81 comments

As a prolific tomato grower (only because they're damn expensive in the uk if you want non gas ripened crap ones and theyre like a crack addiction), you don't need to fiddle around with all of that rubbish.

Plants of all kinds are pretty good at growing on their own with not much help from us if you know what their natural conditions would be. Granted you might get 10% less yield if you don't treat them nicely but its just not worth the 200% more effort.

Stick them in cheap compost indoors and keep moist with an atomiser spray until they germinate. Wait until they are about 3 inches high, then cut out with a spoon and wham in any old plant pot. When they are 15cm tall, feed 'em with cheap tomato food. When they are 25cm tall, yank them out of the pot, poke a 6' bamboo stick 12" into the ground and throw the plant in a hole at the front. Water daily. Tie to pole every so often. Tomatoes done.

Only consideration is don't grow them in the same place every year or they'll get diseased (technically rotate your crops) and make sure its in a very sunny bit.

Make your own compost as well for planting out. I just throw all my veg waste in a black bin and leave it for a year. Anything goes in except for tea bags and meats and plastics.

I spend about 3 hours a year on tomatoes and get literally 30-40kg using this method (street value here for same quality is around £480).

Get your seeds here (the last respectable seed shop): http://www.realseeds.co.uk/

Yes, I am totally with you. No cage needed, no fish-head needed. If you don't care for organic growing, get a good tomato-fertilizer. Else, do it the organic way (just as easy).

One more important side-note though: Make sure to give your tomatoes some kind of roof, if it rains a lot in your location. As said in the posting, "late blight" not only loves water, it loves water on the leaves, that is where the fungi grow. So make sure, to save your tomatoes from direct rain and you will be a lot happier.

We have about 60 different varieties waiting for may to come, to be planted outside.

To be honest I've never had a problem with blight because I rotate religiously (I have several beds) and I water the soil, not the plants. Rain historically hasn't been a major problem living in the south so far :) Pigeon shit is far more hazardous!

Good general advice though.

Tomatoes are, I suspect, easier to grow here in New Zealand. A fern I planted sprouted a tomato. I did nothing except water it once or twice. For about the 5th time today I gave away a bag of about 2kgs of cherry tomatoes. I don't like tomatoes much, but they do look good ripening on the vine. From the sounds of the article, California is a bit hot and dry for them, and the UK, from what you describe, a little cool. Do you grow other veges?

This might sound unscientific but let me say it anyway. It also helps if you have "green thumbs"! I have tried every trick in the book till I've gone blue in the face, but couldn't bring up even a fritillary (pun intended!) in my garden! When my friend William joined me in planting, as some kind of a "boys' day out" (we had seriously good fun mucking about and talking all nonsense, thanks for asking ;-] ), those plants decided to grow and flower and fruit with a vengeance! I feel good for the OP (@hp50g) who get it going at virtually no effort!

Try less hard :) - I had a chain of disasters until I stopped trying all the tricks. Plants grew pretty well for years without our intervention.

Apart from oregano and lavender which instantly snuff it the moment I'm involved.

>> Try less hard

:) "Tried" that too :D

I've taken a 2-year sabbatical from all things muddy. Let's see how things go the next time. Fresh eyes and less anxiety!

I dont know about oregano but I suspect it may be like lavender - dont let it have wet feet. Water it, sure and its ok getting pretty dry. But planted in clay where it sits in water over winter, and it'll die very fast. That's my experience anyway.

Thanks for the tip - will try that :)

We grow tomatoes, leeks, peas, potatoes, chillis, blackberries (these just happened one year so we left them), apples, parsley, thyme, basil, gooseberries, lettuce, butternut squash, French beans, runner beans and kale. We forage for raspberries, figs, blackberries (can't get enough of them), hazel nuts, cobnuts and mushrooms (careful with these - had a couple of near misses). Probably forgotten a few bits there.

That was last year. Same this year (without nearly downing toadstools).

I'm sick of the tasteless supermarket tomatoes and want to grow my own. How far north are you?

I'm in Lincolnshire and manage to grow most stuff. It does take a little more attention (I'm useless during the early months of the year because I always forget to check for frost warnings...).

This year has been dismal so far :S because of the cruddy weather.

In fact, in the UK to a certain extent it's not so much how far North you are, but how far East. I have a friend about "level" with me but on the West of the country and he struggles with his garden. We tend to avoid a lot of the worst weather over here ;D

>> I have a friend about "level" with me but on the West of the country and he struggles with his garden.

Good! Anecdata or not, that's going to be my new excuse! :P

Growing in London is damn easy, especially if you get a mini green house from Wilko to extend the growing season earlier and later in the year.

In the North it really depends on your garden. I have friends in Sheffield with protected terrace house gardens, who grow nearly as easily as me, but my folks with a mildly exposed small holding have a chore getting them providing as many tomatoes as I do - but they won't get a green house.

Those mini green houses blow away!

(I had to climb up a tree to get ours back)

I had to tie mine to my garden fence to stop it toppling over. They never seem to last more than 3 or so years - but for £12 I don't mind too much - just a shame you can't just replace the plastic.

By plastic do you mean the covers?


Mine was more expensive than a replacement greenhouse, BUT the plastic was much tougher.

(not affiliated in any way, was the first result in google)

You think it's bad in the UK? I'm actually missing the variety you can find in supermarkets in the UK compared to the water vessels they sell in South Africa. At least sometimes I could strike it lucky with a Tesco finest from the Isle Wight on a good year.

Grow your own. Africa is great if you have a water supply that doesn't involve legwork. A friend of mine grows tonnes of the things in jo'berg.

Totally, this article has inspired me to do just that. Even if I have to bottle a lot of it for sauces.

South west London. It didn't even snow here :)

Great to see someone else recommending The Real Seed Catalogue! They are a fantastic company, really know their stuff.

> Anything goes in except for tea bags and meats and plastics.

You can put the plastics in, if you are prepared to fish them out afterwards. (Unless you are worried about chemicals in the plastics.)

What's wrong with teabags?

> What's wrong with teabags?

Depends on the brand, but the big UK brands (like PG) use some kind of plastic in the bags which doesn't compost.

It's PLA. It does compost, but at much higher temperatures than most organic waste.

Plastics seem to attract the crows and magpies who will vigorously shred any seedlings near bits of it.

Teabags (twinings every day :) tend to not degrade quickly resulting in tea bags blown all over the garden.

They are excellent. Give them your coffee grounds too. Never deprive a garden of its coffee. Worms go nuts about coffee for some reason.

some of the breeds that LAF offers are not even vaguely hardy. the more mainstream breeds we've gone with from other folks have a much easier time.

Tomatoes are great fun to grow (try Sungold -- fantastic little yellow cherry tomatoes that you can't otherwise buy).

But if you're busy, have a go at chillis: no blight, no splitting, they tolerate under- and over-watering and poor soil, and there are a huge variety available (including some great-looking ornamentals). They have a much longer fruiting period so you're not overwhelmed by huge numbers of chillis at the same time.

If you put them on a sunny windowsill in winter they will survive and keep flowering and fruiting over winter (probably dont need to bother if you live somewhere like Southern California). You'll need to start using fertilizer if you do this.

You can just dry a chilli you like from the supermarket and use the seeds from that: germination rates are near 100%. Then once you're hooked, buy esoteric varieties on the internet.

Sungolds are commercially available -- in very limited quantities, at least here around Boston. They grow very nicely, though, and have a short enough growing season that you don't have to pay very much attention to exactly when you do things for them.

Highly recommended to any hacker in Cambridge or nearby who has a sunny balcony and even vaguely likes tomatoes.

Articles like this always make me a bit sad, as a keen gardener. It usually involves some "hip" but impractical course from a fancily named company who are masking over the fact that 90% of successful gardening is digging a hole and watering. In fact it boils down to two things:

* Basic gardening is not hard

* Fancy equipment is no substitution for practice & experience

All of the equipment (and money) he mentioned did little to impact the problems faced when growing tomatoes; he still struggled with the common diseases (why do courses like that not teach about such things!!). Also, why are they handing round seeds with no sensible advice on flavour, treatment and scale! Aren't they supposed to be experts?

Some tomato basics:

* Tomatoes are great, they generally need very little attention and will fruit under even the worst gardener. BUT initially they do need a very small amount of daily attention!

* They grow bigger than you expect. BUT if you only give it a common garden cane to grow up this will help limit its growth :)

* General advice for all vegetable growing: plant in stages. And spend time picking your varieties depending on the time they fruit. I generally plant seeds once every fortnight during the early part of the year, to make sure everything doesn't crop at once! It seems this "love apple" totally failed to give this basic, and obvious, advice.

It depresses me how many hacks are around selling these gardening courses, when the reality is that it's simple to just get out there and have a go. First year round it won't work so well - but within 4 or 5 years you'll be a dab hand. I recommend trying lettuce as a first attempt - you can plant it straight out in the garden, it grows really quickly, requires minimal attention, and is basically impossible to get wrong (just don't plant the whole pack at once :D). In fact, pretty much anything you can plant out in rows and grows close to the ground will be easy to tend.

Most seed packets come with solid instructions to get the best from your plants, so don't neglect reading them. Oh, another helpful tip is to learn how to dig over & fertilise a garden properly [1], as well as the basics of crop rotation - this will do a lot of improving your success rate.

To finish with an analogy; what "love apple" seem to be advising here, is similar to a non-programmer sitting down with the fresh install of Rails and reading a single page "How To" on "Cloning Amazon in three weeks".

1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/basics/techniques/soil_diggin...

> Tomatoes are great, they generally need very little attention and will fruit under even the worst gardener.

I'll attest to that. We had a garden last summer for the first time in my life and we planted about 30 tomato plants. We started them in trays, transferred them into turned-and-fertilized ground when they were about 5 inches tall, watered them regularly, fertilized them occasionally, spent an hour or two weeding each week, and pinched off the suckers from time to time.

That's pretty much it - and they produced an impressive outpouring of the most delicious ripe tomatoes. That was during a brutally hot summer with hardly any rain (and the rain we did get was torrential).

Granted, we got lucky with the tomatoes, but not everything turned out as well. The carrots were tasty but small, and we didn't get any squash, peas or Brussels sprouts. However, the herbs did great, and we got lots of golden beets, onions, leeks and scallions (we froze the latter at the end of the season and we're still eating them). We got some cucumber but not as many as I would have liked.

Our first batch of lettuce was completely clearcut by local bunnies, but our second and third batches were much more successful. We even planted mustard greens and Russian kale in early August, and we enjoyed them right up to mid-December when we got a hard frost and a heavy snowfall.

One of the highlights of our summer was the period when everything aligned and we were able to enjoy salads composed entirely of stuff from our garden (plus dressing).

I'm already looking forward to gardening again this year. I learned a few things (the hard way) last year and hope to learn plenty more in future.

> The carrots were tasty but small, and we didn't get any squash, peas or Brussels sprouts.

Not surprising, those are amongst the hardest to get right in my experience.

Peas are a pain - you do need good trellis work for them, and to spend time securing the shoots. I still struggle with carrots, if you figure out any tricks let me know! :D

I suggest trying courgettes; they are a little easier than squash to get good results.

> One of the highlights of our summer was the period when everything aligned

I keep meaning to find time to build an app to track that sort of thing. It's my one pain point because I am a useless planner :P and so it is often more luck that judgement when thins come together.

Depends on the climate. Peas don't like hot weather, tomatoes do. Here in the cool, wet, pacific northwest, peas grow like mad, tomatoes need a green house, and peppers are marginal at best. Zucchinis/courgettes can grow like mad, but will get powdery mildew if it's wet.

Personally, with peas, I just plant short ones (28" vines) on 1" spacing, do a lot of them, and let them self support in a mass. Then, part way into the summer, I infill a few squash plants amongst the peas. The peas die off, the squash takes over, and everything is happy.

Agreeing with everything you've said. In addition, there are some really excellent gardening tutorials on Youtube. Last year I learned how to sucker tomatoes from youtube, as well as constructing those vertical string things that allow your tomatoes to grow up instead of out.

Tomato tip: make sure you understand the difference between determinate and indeterminate plants before you buy. Determinate plants fruit all over the bush at one time, and then pretty much die. Indeterminate are more like vines and keep fruiting sporadically over the entire season.

You'll be sad if you are expecting a long tomato season from one or two plants but accidentally buy a determinate plant.

Semi-related, if your climate is warm enough for Jalapeños...those plants just never die. I abused and neglected mine all winter (South Carolina, so never freezing temps) and the poor little plant kept producing fruit. I hardly watered it, never fertilized and it lived in a pot outside. Despite that, it's still happily trucking along ready for the summer :)

you hit the nail on the head with that. Snake oil salesmen. People seem to want to pay to be told something you can read in a book. Its taking money off fools.

Buy a book and read it. This one:


This is the only gardening book i own. People keep buying me new trendy ones etc endorsed by celebrity morons but they usually end up being re-gifted.

This is good for anywhere in the world as well even though it primarily targets northern hemisphere.

Decades of advice, concisely compiled. Its the SICP of gardening.

To be fair, there's something about hands-on learning that some people enjoy or even require to learn best. Even as a fairly experienced gardener, I'd relish the opportunity to spend a little time learning from someone who farms for a living, as long as it's not too expensive.

Books are good too, but nothing beats getting out in the garden and watching an experienced gardener do the real thing.

Any tips on growing tomatoes in an apartment? Don't have much access to land here in NYC, but we do have a decent south facing balcony. Does anybody have experience with those upside-down tomato planters?

Use a SIP (Sub Irrigated Planter) you can make one with a couple 5 gallon buckets http://www.globalbuckets.org

I've tried plane terra cotta pots in the past any during the height of summer they dry out too quickly. Glazed pots are much better but also more expensive.

I'd second this. I've never been a fan of this sort of gardening - but in an apartment it works, and is a hell of a lot easier than pots full of soil :)

A long as you provide a little care, a type of support, (i.e bamboo canes) and lots of good soil, i.e., horse manure, is perfectly ok. In fact, it is much easier than in a garden full of snail, slugs, and other pests.

I wouldn't bother doing the upside down ones - they are a gimmick. You can get bush variety tomatoes which will grow in a pot well and produce lots of fruit without support or space requirements.

I don't know about that - I just used a normal flower hanging basket, and put two small plants per basket, they grew amazingly upside down, and were easy to both water and harvest. Saves having to support the plants as they grow, and frees up floor space. You don't need a special bucket though.

Also try this: http://www.instructables.com/id/VERTICAL-VEGETABLES-quotGrow... - great use of wall space, and brilliant for lettuce and herbs.

Just use a large pot, or the sub-irrigated kind mentioned above. Don't go for the hanging ones—they're messy and don't work as well.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Last year with little experience other than always having gardens as a kid, I planted about a dozen tomato plants, as well as others, and all did quite well in the grand scheme of things.

I too had the late blight—again nothing I was ever taught to deal with. Turns out it is mostly overwatering and moist foliage. I'll keep better watch next time.

Also have to say—I did all this planting in a little 20x20' plot right outside our startup's office (with permission from the land owners). Every day I got to go outside and garden, do a little physical labor, get some sun, and produce something. As a programmer, it was both cathartic and relaxing and allowed me time to think and time to process. I think I was happier and more motivated the entire time, and along with the harvested tomatoes, was well worth the time put in.

My biggest problems were neighbors who were a bit too into "sharing culture"—in other words, they stole my tomatoes. Oh well, we still had plenty, so maybe they were right.

Love Apple Farm's is a great local resource here in the south bay.

I've had mixed results with their tomatoes, mostly for not following their tried and true approach to nurturing your green leafed friends.

This year due to a great pepper plant I bought last year, I've been growing an abundant number of seedlings of assorted types. I plan on following the best practices from Love Apple for tomatoes, but will also look into nurturing the remaining plants.

The one thing I've found in raising your own plants from seeds is how much literature is dedicated to interacting with your seedlings.

I enjoy my time when I can work at home and interact with my seedlings.

If in the south bay and interested in some tomatoes or peppers, feel free to ping me. <username> at gmail.

Fun fact: Tomatoes love thrash and death metal.

http://eksith.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/tomato-update/ http://eksith.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/tomato-experiment/

I don't know if this is only due to simply loud and/or harsh noises (I didn't check classical) or whether it's only applicable to this variety, but since I can't be attentive as I should be all the time, they worked as a wonderful babysitter.

This is probably on the lines of the vibrations causing the plants to stiffen up and produce better supporting structures. You can do the same thing by pointing a desk fan at your seedlings for a couple of hours a day.

Metal is cooler though :)

Ah, it's bit too chilly to run a fan at the moment, but I'm definitely gonna need to try that this Spring / Summer. I think that's probably the most plausible explanation I've had so far. A few people told me that the sound of "impending doom" may cause them to hurry up and get stronger to withstand potential danger, but that seems too far fetched.

Thanks for the suggestion!

I've been going to a large Bay Area tomato tasting for the last few years. In case anyone is looking for more recommendations, my favorites from last year were:

* Momotoro

* Exotic Blue Green

* Black Cherry

* Flamme'

* Indigo Rose

It's interesting how much the flavor varies from year to year, and from grower to grower. Sometimes I find a favorite variety to be blah the next, and vice versa. But I guess I've got to find a source for Orange Russian 117.

Where do you get the momotoros?

You can get the stuff he mentioned from Love Apple Farms. They're in Ben Lomond (down 17 I think)

I haven't grown them, but only tasted them the Kassenhoff tasting (linked below). I believe they got them (at least initially) from Kitazawa: http://www.kitazawaseed.com/seed_111-125.html

What's the info on these tomato tastings? I'm in the Bay Area as well and would live to attend.

This is the one I've been attending:


They are in Alameda and announce a date in fall.

Growing tomatoes or anything really, is the perfect counter balance to working on a computer. I've solved many issues while removing suckers from tomatoes or spraying neem to ward off mold and pests.

Growing anything is like that. Except lawns, which drive you insane. When you manage to get the majority of a meal out your own garden it is very satisfying.

Which is why I dug my lawn up and planted potatoes :)

They are excellent to grow - only recently stumbled on the system where you keep heaping soil on their greenery to force more growth. It's amazing when you dig them up. Your giving me ideas.

Yeah that works a treat. Requires a good stock of compost though which is a bit hard the first couple of years.

Agreed. My wife is a huge gardener and I often get roped into helping her with a variety of tasks. Bed building, tilling, planting, weeding, watering, all of it!

It's a very nice compliment to sitting my ass in an office chair 6 hours a day.

Tomatoes are quite prolific and can be used in many types of dishes. For sauce, I like plum varieties roasted or dried; for sandwiches and snacking, I like black russians or yellow grape varieties.

Some people have already mentioned chilis as a good crop to grow along with tomatoes. Might as well grow cilantro too and you're halfway to a decent salsa (buy the onions, they ripen at a different time of year).

I also like to grow basil alongside my tomatoes. You can buy a nursery plant for the same cost as buying fresh basil for cooking from the grocery store, and the basil plant will produce all summer long. Sweet basil is great for pestos, margherita sandwiches and pizzas, and marinara sauce. Thai basil (which tastes of anise) is great for curries.

On the whole, I find that growing my own herbs gives me the most bang for the buck. It's still worth it to grow tomatoes since there's no way you can match the taste of a home-grown one.

I've just started growing this weekend and I'm super excited, we're starting with gardeners delight tomatoes and some chillies, once I've gotten into it a bit more we're going to expand out with a few others (onions and lettuce I think). It'll make an excellent diversion from coding.

It's great, I get a nice diversion and a load of fresh veg. Any extra I end up with will either go to friends and family, or if they're happy with it a local food bank.

good luck :) you can't go wrong with gardeners delight tomatoes - awesome variety.

Chillis are a pain. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.

salad crops are good starters and you can just throw them in a tray on a sunny window sill as well.

Wouldn't bother with onions as its cheaper to buy. Try leeks if you have some space instead (let some flower as well as they look pretty cool).

Enjoy and don't get discouraged by disasters. I've been doing it for 20 years and still manage to ruin something every year!

>> Chillis are a pain. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.

:( Tell me about it! Neither did tomatoes, nor did Bell peppers/Capsicum, nor did those Courgettes, neither did the marrows, sugar snap peas... oh sugar!

I am going to find a safe, dark place, and crawl into foetal position!

>> I've been doing it for 20 years and still manage to ruin something every year!

+1 Hope springs eternal. Thanks.

That usually happens the first couple of years. First year I did strawberries I got one fruit and a fucking pigeon stole it.

Never give up :)

:D That one cracked me up!! Thanks for that one mate!

Your safe dark place sounds like a good candidate for growing mushrooms!

Thanks for the advice! For the moment they're getting grown in the kitchen and then they'll be planted out in our back garden, I've left it a little late in the year for a few but given the UK weather I don't think I'll suffer too much from it.

Weather has been rubbish so far so you're doing the right thing. My tomatoes are about 2 inches high and on the living room window sill at the moment as I wasn't confident I could avoid last frost. Avidly watching weather reports!

One piece of advice I haven't seen yet is to pick varieties that are known to work well in your geographical area. Growing tomatoes in London or northern California is drastically different weather-wise than Texas. Where fancy heirlooms can work in the former, planting them here will net you a couple of really great tomatoes and mostly frustration.

Picking varieties that are known to work will with your climate will largely eliminate the need for the fish head-egg shell-aspirin voodoo. Though if you're into those things, feel free. Gardening is better if you experiment and enjoy yourself as most journeys are.

Ah... my house at Buenos Aires has around 10 trees that just produce all kinds of fruits. I harvest a lot of fruits, make homemade mermelade. And not to mention my particular collection of vine planted all around the park.

Awesome. My wife and I have actually taken classes with and grown tomatoes from the folks mentioned in the article. I recommend it if you can and are nearby.

For those looking for his favourite seeds (Orange Russian) in the UK. I just ordered some from here:


Was the only place I could find, but seems to be run by a passionate tomato ninja, and checkout was relatively painless.

Pleasantly surprised by how fun and informative I found this article.

I initially suspected the title was a metaphor of some sort, and almost stopped reading. Very glad I didn't - you've inspired me to give it a try! :)

Well, it is. We (my girlfriend infected me with this tomato-addiction), grow about 60 different varieties this year and some potatoes, some chilies, a lot of herbs and so on...

It really is a perfect relief to 8 - 10 hours on a job in front of pair of monitors.

And it really tastes great. I am not able to buy this nearly tasteless round-red-water called tomatoes at the supermarket anymore. ;-)

Baia Nicchia: Bay Area tomato farm http://baianicchia.blogspot.com/

so i read this correctly over half of the produce was lost with so much effort. fertiliser and soil treatments people! fish heads. hipsters got too much time for their own good

Joe Hewitt is back!

You could skip a lot of work by buying already potted plants. Let a professional do that, it's not worth for the 50-100 you need. Steel cages are great if you have 20-40 year plans or have money to waste. Otherwise you can buy a few 2X4s and then create some sort of net with sticks and wire. Each plant is then tied to it and you direct the bigger branches to spread. Yeah they need some fertilizer for better production and maybe pesticide but that's about it. If the land hasn't been used for ages, it will be even better.

Of course you can walk into a nursery and come out of it with $2K in equipment, but it's not really needed. You may get say 1.25 lbs more per plant more but...you can plant more and work much less. Tomato plants are resilient and there should be no drama when growing them. Plant them in stages, tie them to the "net," water them, remove the grass and maybe spray them with pesticide. That's all folks!

Bit expensive doing it that way. My toms cost about £10 a year, usually to replace the rotten bamboo sticks and for tomato food. Seeds come from last year's :)

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact