Table of Contents
- 1. Organic Tomato Seeds and Seedlings
- 2. Garden Preparation
- 3. Planting and Care of Organic Tomatoes
- Planting hole/trench
- Mulching of organic tomatoes
- Watering organic tomatoes
- Trellising and supporting organic tomatoes
- Companion plants for organic tomatoes
- Pruning of organic tomatoes
- Fertilizers for organic tomatoes
- Control of Pests and diseases
- Harvesting, Storing, and Marketing Organic Tomatoes
- FAQs About Organic Tomato Farming in Kenya
Organic tomato farming in Kenya is not a new topic to many people. It is a long debated issue with many proponents and opponents. Those who do tomato production as a horticultural business argue that organic tomato production is challenging and that it is not meant for large-scale production. On the other hand, small-scale farmers argue that organic tomatoes are the best for individual and environmental health purposes. They are all valid arguments depending on an individual’s point of view.
Without disapproving anyone’s opinion, this post seeks to educate the Kenyan farmer on how to grow tomatoes organically. We will try to guide you from seed selection up to crop harvesting of organic tomatoes, pointing out the best practices along the way. We will also recommend some of the best organic materials in the country you can use to increase your yields better. At the end of the article, you should be able to grow tomatoes organically, whether for food or business comfortably. Keep reading the article for the best tips about organic tomato production.
Organic tomatoes are grown without synthetic and chemical pesticides and fertilizers. For your crop to be certified as purely organic, you must meet strict guidelines, from seed selection to harvesting. That is why you will need official certification showing that your produce is organic. That is done in order to protect the consumer. For more information about organic farming, check here.
Growing tomatoes organically is challenging; you will probably need help if you are a newbie farmer. We advise starting out small and then growing your farming as you gain more experience. But if you follow the guidelines laid down here, you can start a new tomato organic farm.
1. Organic Tomato Seeds and Seedlings
When you think about organically producing tomatoes, the first step should be where the seeds or seedlings will come from. Some farmers may decide to buy seedlings from other people’s nurseries and then transplant them when they are ready. Although doing that will save you the costs of preparing a nursery and buying seeds, you are not sure about the quality of the seedlings. Additionally, according to surveys, the price of seedlings is way higher than what it would cost you to buy your own seeds and prepare your own nursery.
The most encouraged method of starting tomato organic production is buying seeds and preparing your own nursery. Doing that will ensure that quality is not compromised and that you are completely sure about the tomato variety you want. Broadly speaking, tomato varieties are divided into two main types, determinate and indeterminate varieties.
Determinate tomato varieties are the ones that grow up to a certain size, and then the growing stops. All their fruits tend to mature and ripen simultaneously, which means a shorter harvesting period. These seeds are cheaper, and they are locally available. They make good starting points for beginners as they have a high germination rate even under harsh conditions.
Indeterminate tomato varieties are also referred to as heirlooms. They will keep growing for a long time, provided they are given the right conditions or not affected by pests and diseases. These seeds are mostly hybrid and yield higher than determinate varieties.
There are also those who save seeds from mature organic tomato plants for future plating purposes. It is a good method of producing seedlings for those under a strict budget and will also offer you the chance to select among the best. However, for this method of seed production to work, you should the following guidelines:
- Select only the best tomatoes. Doing this increases the chances of a better yield.
- Cut the tomatoes in half and harvest the seeds inside. You should include a little flesh if possible.
- Put the seeds in a sealed jar.
- Wait for the seeds to ferment. It will take around 3-5 days. You will know fermentation has taken place when you see mold on the seeds.
- Remove the seeds from the jar and clean them.
- Dry the seeds in an open space and store them to be used when you are ready.
After you have selected the seed variety, it is time to put them in a nursery for germination. Proper nursery preparation is a very important step when it comes to organic tomato production. It will determine the seed germination rate, which determines how many seedlings you are able to plant. You may have the seeds, but they may fail to germinate, which means you will have to source for the seeds again.
Open space nursery beds are mostly used for local seeds or self-saved seeds. That is because sourcing this kind of seeds is easier, and the farmer can prepare large nursery beds that will produce many seedlings to spare after planting. Hybrid or heirloom seeds are very expensive, and special care is needed for their nurseries. Farmers mostly use plastic cups or ice cube trays as nurseries for these seeds. Doing that increases the germination rate and ensures minimal seed loss.
Whatever kind of nursery you use, care should be taken on the sol used. Soil harbours pests and diseases that can negatively affect the germination rate of seeds. Since you will be growing your seeds organically and chemical pesticides are not allowed, you will have to come up with organic ways to prevent seed-bed diseases and pests.
Remember that the seedbed should remain wet but not damp till the seeds sprout. Too much water in the seed beds will cause damping-off, which will cause seed decay. After sprouting, the seedlings should be watered sporadically and continually conditioned for the planting environment. Seedlings should stay in the seed beds for 4-6 weeks.
2. Garden Preparation
There are those who will plant their organic tomatoes in greenhouses while others plant in open gardens. However you decide to grow your organic tomatoes, you should prepare the soil meticulously to ensure that your organic tomato plants grow healthy and produce high yields. Tomatoes do well in neutral PH soil, with sand or loam soils being the most suitable, while clay soil is the least suitable.
The containers or beds to grow organic tomatoes ensure that the soil is mixed with good organic compost that has aged fully. You should also consider the water retention of the soil and drainage, which are all essential for successful tomato production. Remember that how well you prepare the soil will eventually determine your yields when it comes to organic tomatoes.
Since organic tomatoes will not use chemical fertilizers while growing up, soil preparation before the actual planting becomes a very important step. One of the preparations you will have to make is to ensure that you have enough compost manure to mix with the soil. Compost preparation should start at least 10 weeks before planting. That is because you must allow the compost manure to age well before being used on the farm.
In Kenya, we have several bio formulations that help in the digestion of compost manure to make it more useful in the garden, but the best remains to be BioZone’s Bioclean BFB and Bamoyeast BFB.
Bioclean BFB is a concentrated combination of microbiological enzymes and bacteria that effectively digest organic matter and get rid of odour and flies. It has enzymes that help in the faster degradation of organic matter with the help of endospore-forming bacilli, fungal algae, and actinomycetes strains. All of these help in the release of proper nutrients, supplements, and moisture.
BioZone Bamoyeast BFB is not an organic fertilizer. It is a bacterial formulation from Biozone that aids in the digestion of compost manure. Compost manure must be comprehensively broken down to release all the nutrients during the lifetime of the plant it is applied to. Failure to do that, the plant fails to benefit fully from the manure. To ensure that the breakdown happens fully, BioZone Bamoyeast BFB is applied to the compost manure for a period of time. This aids in rapidly breaking down the compost manure and thereby releasing all the nutrients in a form that plants can absorb easily.
Remember that you must ensure your soil has the proper water retention capability before planting since tomatoes will need a lot of water. To ensure your soil can retain water properly, you should mix it with a water retainer, the best in Kenya being Biozone’s Waterlock BFB.
The Biozone Waterlock BFB Is a formulation made of organic extract, Gel, and Silica. It is a very good soil conditioner, root enhancer, and growth promoter, but most importantly, it’s a powerful soil water retainer. Its soil water retention capabilities help keep plant dehydration problems at bay longer.
Some of its main features include the following;
- Improves soil water holding capacity around the plant’s roots.
- It increases the overall growth of the plant.
- It encourages the growth of beneficial soil microflora.
- It decreases the use of chemical fertilizers by at least 20%.
- It is compatible with all organic and synthetic fertilizers.
- It improves nutrient uptake in plants.
- It enhances soil aeration and maintains constant soil temperature.
- It increases the germination rate.
- It is a 100% residue-free product.
- It’s easy to apply to the root zone of a plant.
3. Planting and Care of Organic Tomatoes
With the above steps and recommendations, you are ready to plant your organic tomatoes in open fields or closed doors. You should know that tomatoes require sufficient warmth, which means at least 6 hours a day of sunlight. The optimal temperatures for tomatoes are between 55 and 85 degrees Ferenheight, and for those planting their organic tomatoes indoors, you should supply enough heat to keep your plants comfortable.
Tomato Sunscald is a problem caused by growing conditions – specifically intense, direct sunlight for extended periods during very hot weather. The excessive sunlight discolours patches on ripening or green tomatoes. If you are growing tomatoes in very hot climatic conditions, you should devise a way to cover the fruits, particularly after they start maturing. Remember that sun-burned tomatoes (tomatoes with sun patches) will depreciate in value in the market.
You should either choose a planting hole trench depending on your preferences and watering ways. Beginners are advised to go for holes since they can easily manage and hold water for long. They are the best option in areas with water shortages. That is why it is good to ensure your soil is mixed with a water retaining agent like Biozone Waterlock BFB, especially in dry areas.
Organic tomato seedlings should be planted at least 90cm for unsupported indeterminate varieties and 60cm for supported determinate types. The trench or hole should have a planting depth to cover two-thirds of the seedling stem. That is because tomatoes grow new roots from the stem. Burying your seedling deep also eliminates the chance of wind damage.
In your hole or trench, you should add a handful of organic compost manure and a spoonful of crushed eggshells. The compost manure will continually replenish your seedling with vital nutrients as it grows, while the eggshells ensure that your seedling has enough calcium, which will be missing since you will not be using chemical fertilizers.
After planting your seedling, water the hole or trench well, taking care not to uproot the seedling. The water should not be too much pressurized for those who will be using watering pipes. When watering, avoid splashing water on the leaves of the seedling. Doing that may cause leaf rot, which will cause your seedling to wither and eventually die.
Mulching of organic tomatoes
Organic tomatoes need special care and attention because simple mistakes and oversights can be costly. Mulching is important for healthy and vibrant organic tomato plants, especially determinate ones and those planted on open fields. Mulching helps the tomatoes retain moisture, regulate temperature, and control weeds. These are important determinants of healthy organic tomatoes, especially those on the open fields.
When mulching, you should do so using organic materials, with the best varieties being shredded leaves, straw, grass clippings, compost, newspaper, biodegradable weed mats, shredded hardwood, sawdust, and wood chips. Avoid feeding hey as it has many weed seeds that can easily be passed to your garden. Remember that using organic material for mulching will also add to soil fertility after decomposition. Organic mulching material should also be constantly checked and added since they decompose faster, especially after coming in contact with water.
Watering organic tomatoes
Organic tomatoes, just like normal ones, need water to thrive. Garden tomatoes need a minimum of 1-2 inches of water every week. Those planted in containers (mostly in greenhouses) need more water than that since container water evaporates quickly due to overheating.
When watering, the water should be applied at the ground level. Sprinklers or splashing water at the leaves will cause fungal diseases o your plants. Keep in mind that less water, uneven watering, or too much water for your organic tomatoes will be problematic for your plants. Less water and uneven watering cause blossom end rot, while too much water will make your mature tomato fruits crack.
Watering of the plants should continue until they stop flowering. Remember that fruits that don’t get enough water, like nutrients, will be underdeveloped. If you plan on growing determinate organic tomatoes, you should have an adequate water source since they take very long in the garden. Some varieties will take up to 6 months before they can be uprooted. If you have insufficient water, you are advised to go for the indeterminate organic tomato varieties.
Trellising and supporting organic tomatoes
Organic tomatoes, like normal tomatoes, also need to be staked, supported, and trellised. Supporting and trellising are important because they allow fresh air and light into the plants, and harvesting becomes easier. The trellises should be put in place immediately after planting to avoid damage to the plant roots.
You should also be careful about the material you use for support and trellising. That is because the material used may affect the development of the fruits at later stages. Wooden poles and cloth/ plastic threads are the best materials to use. Metal poles attract a lot of heat, especially during the hot season, which may cause burns to the fruits or the plant stems and leaves.
Companion plants for organic tomatoes
Did you know that planting special combinations of vegetables, flowers, and herbs can minimize pest and disease problems and create a high-yielding, beautiful garden? Since no chemical pesticides are allowed in organic farming, farmers use companion plants to fight pests and diseases.
According to The Vegetable’s Gardeners Bible by Edward C. Smith, the recommended companion plants for organic tomatoes are asparagus, basil, bush beans, cabbage family, carrots, celery, chive, cucumber, garlic, head lettuce, marigold, mint, nasturtium, onions, parsley, pepper, and pot marigold. Pole beans, dill, fennel, and potatoes near tomatoes should not be planted.
Planting of the companion plants should be at the end of rows or as portions of different plots or fields. That is because planting them too near to the tomato plants will make harvesting and movement between the plants awkward. If you plant companion plants that also need harvesting, you should not combine their harvesting with that of tomatoes. Each should have separate harvesting periods.
Pruning of organic tomatoes
Due to the regulation of temperature, constant watering combined with mulching, organic tomatoes produce suckers at a higher rate than normal tomato plants. That is why they need constant pruning to allow fresh air and sunlight. Pruning reduces suckers and manages the growth of the plant. Although a single plant may have many suckers, which may result in many fruits, most of these fruits are unhealthy and tend to be smaller in size.
Pruning is therefore encouraged in order to produce larger and healthier fruits which will be more in demand in the market. Pruning also allows the farmer the chance to constantly interact with the plants, which is a good way to monitor their growth and development. In case of any disease outbreak, the farmer is able to take the necessary corrective action before spreading.
Fertilizers for organic tomatoes
Since no chemical fertilizers are allowed in producing organic tomatoes, organic farmers are at a disadvantage since they have to find alternative natural fertilizers to help in their plants’ proper growth and development. Since you have already learned about organic compost, its benefits to your plants, and why it should be continuously applied to the soil until harvesting, you should learn about other natural ways to help fertilize and boost soil fertility.
The Biozone BlackGold BFB is one of the best organic fertilizers in Kenya. It is an organic mixture of Peat Moss and Silica, certified as safe for animals, plants, and the environment. Its main features are:
- Soil enhancer. This organic fertilizer improves the soil to make the absorption of nutrients by the crops better.
- Root enhancer. It stimulates the growth of crop roots which is good for better nutrient uptake.
- Growth stimulant. It contains organic bacteria that are responsible for sustained plant growth and development.
- Accelerates seed germination. Favourable conditions do this due to the enhanced soil and the soil diseases suppressed.
- Increases crop yield. The stimulated crop growth through enhanced roots and nutrient uptake will improve crop yields.
- Residue-free. Unlike chemical fertilizers that leave harmful residue in the soil, this organic fertilizer will not leave any chemical traces, protecting the soil from the harmful effects of these chemicals.
Epsom salt is very important for organic tomatoes because it helps in the supply of magnesium. Epsom salt is rich in magnesium which makes your plants bloom more, grow stronger, produce more fruits, have a greener look, and produce tastier, sweeter tomatoes.
Fish emulsion is a natural fertilizer that boosts your plants at the transplanting stage and growing season. It is used as a soluble solution which is made by blending different body parts of fish, including the bones.
Organic cottonseed meal is a natural fertilizer that is rich in potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus. It can be used during transplanting as an organic soil amendment and during the growing season to aid in the foliage of the plants.
Apart from the above-mentioned substances, organic farmers also use other compounds like alfalfa meal and seaweed to boost soil fertility and provide the required nutrients in a natural way.
Control of Pests and diseases
Pests and diseases will be your biggest threat to high yields and profits when it comes to organic tomato production. That is because, without chemical pesticides, control and cure are almost impossible, and the only option you have is prevention. Although it is tough to achieve a pest and disease-free environment in tomatoes without using chemical pesticides, it can be achieved by using organic pesticides and other natural agents and following good farming practices.
A. Common tomato pests
The most common pests you will encounter in organic tomato production are whiteflies, aphids, cutworms, and hornworms. The following is a description of how to prevent and get rid of these pests naturally and organically.
Whiteflies are some of the most destructive pests in crop production. They suck water and nutrients from the plant’s leaves, leaving them dry and unable to aid in the further growth of the plant. That eventually leads to the death of the plant. Here in Kenya, control and prevention of whiteflies are easy with the BioZone FlyWin BFB.
The BioZone FlyWin BFB is a natural whitefly repellant and will do this without harming the plant. It has the following main features:
- Residue-free. Unlike chemical pesticides, which leave a harmful residue on the leaves of the plants, this pesticide does not leave any harmful residue on the plant.
- Free from toxins. This organic pesticide does not have toxins that may be harmful to the plant or the eventual consumer of the plant product.
- Boosts plant immunity. This organic pesticide will boost the plant’s immunity, which will enable it to fight other insects, pests, and diseases.
Aphids normally appear in clusters on the stems or leaves of your tomato plants. Although a few may not have much effect on tomatoes, too many of them will eventually kill the plant. Many farmers crush these insects with their fingers or release other predatory insects like ladybugs and lacewings to deal with them when they are not many. When they are many and threaten your plants, you can use natural insecticidal soap that uses natural fats and oils and spray on the plants. You can also pluck the infected plants to stop the insects’ from spreading to other plants.
Cutworms are caterpillars that feed on young tomato plants, especially at night. They will eat through the stem and cause your plant to eventually fall down before going to the next one. Organic farmers use collars to prevent this damage. Collars are made from aluminium foil or paper and are usually around 10 inches long and 4 inches high. The collar is bent to form a circle around the stem of the plant and then stapled intact. It is then buried 3 inches in the ground, effectively stopping these caterpillars from attacking your plant.
Hornworms are destructive caterpillars that continuously feed on tomato plants, causing much destruction. They are big in size, growing up to 3 inches, which means they can easily be picked. The problem is that they camouflage very well with their pale green colour, which makes it to be spotted. The nymph and larval stages are also smaller and harder to see. Farmers use Bacillus Thuringiensis, which is an organic treatment for almost all caterpillars.
Pests can prove destructive and hard to handle once they infest your organic tomatoes. That is why you should take preventive measures and be prepared before you start the planting process. The following are common preventive measures you can follow in dealing with pests:
- Early elimination of weeds at least 2 weeks before transplanting.
- Use of biopesticides such as pepper to control pests and viruses.
- Plough and harrow the field before transplanting. This will expose cutworms to natural enemies.
- Plant repellant plants such as chia seed, marigold, and chives around the plantation.
- Conserve natural enemies such as ants that help in controlling cutworms.
- Dig near damaged seedlings; this destroys cutworms.
- Make barriers to protect the transplanted seedlings. Barriers can be made by wrapping paper, aluminium foil, thin cardboard, or similar materials around the base of plant stems. Toilet rolls are handy as cutworm collars since they are readily available and are biodegradable.
B. Common tomato diseases
The most common diseases that pose a threat to organic tomatoes are blight, bacterial wilt, and black-end rot.
Tomato blight is one of the most devastating diseases in organic tomato production. A major symptom of the disease is dry brown lesions on stems, leaves, and fruits. Affected fruits appear rotten and fall prematurely. Tomatoes are most susceptible to blight during cold and wet weather. This is due to high levels of moisture on the leaves for a prolonged period, which is a conducive environment for the fungal spores to germinate and spread rapidly. Preventive spraying using organic fungicides is the best control measure, but once the disease has set in, there is nothing much a farmer can do. The loss incurred could be 100 per cent.
Bacterial wilt is caused by bacteria. Tomato plants attacked by bacterial wilt wither and then dry up even when weather conditions are wet. In organic tomato production, this disease is controlled by:
- Using certified seeds and avoiding establishing the seedbed on infected fields.
- Encouraging crop rotation, pruning, and staking for air circulation to reduce humidity as humid conditions are favourable for late blight.
- Avoid overhead irrigation and provide space between crops as required.
- Plant more resistant tomato varieties.
Blossom-end rot is manifested on the fruits where the blossom ends appear rotten and water soaked or rotten and dry. Blossom end rot is not caused by any organism. It is a physiological disease caused by:
- Too much nitrogen in the early stages of growth.
- Irregular or infrequent watering.
- Calcium deficiency in young fruits.
The disease can be controlled through:
- Regular watering.
- Top dressing the crop with the right amount of nitrogen.
- Application of calcium compounds in the soil.
Harvesting, Storing, and Marketing Organic Tomatoes
After the hard work of planting and taking care of your plants comes the time to reap the rewards for your efforts, harvesting. Harvesting begins 75-90 days after planting. Most farmers prefer to harvest their fruits when they turn reddish in colour. When picking tomatoes, take care not to rip or tear the stems, as that stresses the plant and opens the path for disease and insect damage. Most tomatoes will have a little knob in their stems, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch above the tomato, where the stem will snap easily in two, releasing the tomato from the plant.
For better fruit harvesting and marketing, you should observe the following guidelines when it comes to organic tomatoes:
- Green stage harvesting is advised if you will be sending your tomatoes to far distant markets. Ensure that the fruit is mature before picking. An expert should do this kind of picking since it is easy to pick immature fruits.
- Pink stage harvesting is advised for nearby markets. The tomatoes are picked immediately a pinkish colour starts appearing. It is also the best stage to harvest tomatoes when you don’t have a ready market.
- Partial red stage harvesting is advised when the tomatoes are meant for the local market, estimated to be used within the next 5 days. The majority of the farmers with a ready market harvest their fruits at this stage.
- Full red stage harvesting is advised if the tomatoes will be used immediately. It is tricky because the tomatoes can easily rot if not consumed within 2 days. This stage is normally used for tomatoes that make other products like ketchup, sauce, soup, chutney, etc.
Knowing when the best harvesting stage for organic tomatoes is important since it will help you avoid unnecessary losses due to fruits going bad or storage expenses. Remember that tomatoes are stored in enclosed rooms at room temperature but not refrigerated. Refrigeration makes tomatoes bland and mealy.
Remember that organic tomatoes should be packaged with a clear sign of ‘organic’ on the packaging material or storage crates. That is because organic tomatoes attract a better market and are sold at a higher price than normally grown tomatoes.
FAQs About Organic Tomato Farming in Kenya
How long do organic tomatoes take to grow?
Many people, especially beginner farmers, want to know how long it takes for organic tomatoes to grow and start harvesting. With the right conditions, it will take about 20 to 30 days for your tomato plant to flower after planting and another 30 to 80 days for the fruit to grow and ripen. Don’t forget the six to eight weeks in addition to this if you’re going to be starting your tomato plant from seeds. All in all, organic tomatoes will take around 120 days from seeds to harvesting, give or take a few days.
Should organic tomatoes be grown inside or in the open?
There are those who want to know which is better between growing organic tomatoes inside and outside. Outside is the way to go for best results with your tomatoes, since that ensures they get enough sunlight and warmth every single day. And while it is definitely possible to successfully grow tomatoes inside, your plants will likely be smaller and won’t yield quite as much fruit. You’ll also have to pay close attention to make sure they’re getting enough sun, which could require changing their locations throughout the day.
What is the difference between organic tomatoes and regular tomatoes?
Begimmer farmers always ask the difference between organic tomatoes and regular ones. Regular tomatoes are produced with chemical-based pesticides and fertilizers while organic tomatoes are not. As a result, organic tomatoes tend to be smaller than regular tomatoes, though considered more nutritious by many people and healthy. That is because chemical pesticides sometimes leave chemical residues on tomatoes which can be hazardous to your health.
Which is more profitable between organic tomatoes and regular tomatoes?
Many people, especially beginner may wonder which is the more profitable between organic tomatoes and regular tomatoes. It is hard to tell which is better in terms of profitability between the two methods of tomato production. But many retailers have found out that organic tomatoes are more in demand than regular ones. That means sales will be higher. But due to lack of conventional methods of organic tomato production, they are usually produced in small quantities, which means regular tomatoes can bring in more profits because they can be produced in large scale.
Contrally to the myth that organic tomatoes are hard to produce, producing this tomatoes is easy enough for any one to do. You will only need to know about the natural alternatives when it comes to pesticides and fertilizers. In Kenya, BioZone has a whole range of products that can help you in organic farming. Remeber that organic products are considered healthy by many consumers, and therefore, highly marketable.