The Recipe for Tomatoes

Some people, upon seeing my  garden, declare that I must have "Green Fingers" (defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "a natural ability to grow plants"). The term conjures up some magical explanation for why some people's gardens flourish while other people, despite their best efforts, only seem to fail. It implies that from birth, some people have a 'hidden gardening gene' that ensures that everything that person attempts to grow will thrive, flower, and fruit. But above all, I suspect the kind of people who label others as "green fingered" are first and foremost justifying their own inability to grow things. This inability I suspect is firmly and simply planted in a lack of gardening knowledge, or perhaps just a lack of time to tend the crops.

As I can tell, green fingers don't exist. If they did, I think I would have them, and I am certain that I don't.

My best efforts at growing watermelons end up with unripe fruits the size of a golf-ball, before the plants shrivel and die. I have tried multiple times, but have in the end given up in disgust. Its a bit puzzling, since other cucurbits such as cucumbers, courgettes, and pumpkins I grow with ease. I am also particularly adept   at growing carrots that compete with Medusa for their number of extremities, and pencil-thin parsnips.  Winter cabbages are a flop to the extent that my wife questions my sanity each time I valiantly try again, and again.

No, if I had green fingers, several crops that defy me would regularly grace out tables.

But for most things, I think gardening is akin to baking. If you can follow a recipe, you can grow a crop. Skimp on one thing, and your efforts may well be doomed. Forget the baking powder, and your cake might be better used as a landscaping paver.

So given it is early summer, here is my recipe for a good tomato crop. Follow it to the letter and you will be giving them to your neighbours, or making chutney, before you know it.


  • One tomato plant (for beginners try Moneymaker, or a cherry tomato (e.g. Sweet 100)
  • A sunny part in the garden with well-worked soil that has not previously grown tomatoes in the last 3 years
  • A strong stake at least 2 m tall (bamboo is great)
  • Two heaped spadefuls of compost (bought or make your own)
  • Something to tie the plant up with (I use strips of old pantyhose)
  • Fertiliser (something with N, P, and K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) and trace elements. Or you can use blood and bone, or fish-based fertilisers. 
Makes enough tomatoes for one person from New Year until late April or May. Multiply the recipe for the number of people you want to feed. 

How to make them:
  1. In late October through till early December dig over the ground until it has a crumbly texture.  If growing multiple plants, prepare planting holes at spacings of at least 0.8 m (between plants and between rows).
  2. Push the stake firmly down into the ground and test for firmness. The top can wiggle but the stake should resist being pulled back out.
  3.  Dig in the compost and a heaped tablespoon of fertiliser at the base of each stake.
  4. Remove the plant from the pot and plant it 2-3 cm deeper than the soil level. This encourages more roots and a sturdier plant. 
  5. Give the plant a mulch of hay or pea-straw 2-3 cm thick over an area at least the size of a dinner plate. Don't let the mulch touch the stem. 
  6. Wait until the plant is 30 cm tall and then tie it loosely to the stake with a strip of pantyhose or other soft material.
  7. Remove the side branches that grow in the forks between the main stem and each leaf - do this by regularly by pinching them off with your fingers. 
  8. Keep on tying up at regular intervals before the unsupported top is long enough to flop over.
  9. Only water during dry spells, keep the water off the leaves, and water deeply. Once or twice a week, with several litres per plant, is a lot better than a sprinkling once a day.
  10. Pick tomatoes. If any develop that have brown or black spots pick them and dispose of away from the crop. 
  11. Pick more tomatoes.
  12. Enjoy them sliced, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and home-grown basil leaves.
  13.  Invent even more ways of eating tomatoes.
  14. Give tomatoes away.
  15. Freeze tomatoes.
  16. Make chutney.
  17. Save seeds from your favourite plants (put them through a sieve to remove pulp, dry on a saucer, and then store them in a labelled plastic clip-seal bag). 
  18. At the end of the season, when the plant is dying, pull them up for the winter and compost them. Remember where you grew them so you can plant them somewhere else the following spring. 
For the more adventurous, I love the following varieties:

Tommy Toe
Garden Peach
Black Cherry
Oregon Spring

I find the larger tomato varieties  are very prone to rotting in the humid Auckland summers. If you want a tomato plant that produces huge trusses of up to 20 medium-sized fruit, try Tommy Toe.

May you be inundated with tomatoes this summer,