Today, I’m talking about tomatoes, those stalwarts of any self-respecting veg drawer. I think I’m slightly addicted to the sharp luscious smell of tomato leaves and of a just-picked tomato. Those of you who’ll be growing them for the first time are in for a treat!
They are fabulous for growing in pots, as well as greenhouses and veg plots, and you can even have little varieties like ‘Tumbling Tom’ in hanging baskets. A common way of growing them is in Growbags (proper ones, not three barmy women talking about horticulture amongst other things!), but sunny patios are great, even bay windows indoors……….
1. Tomato Varieties
As you’ll know from the salad aisles in the supermarket, there are a great many varieties of tomato out there. And that is only a FRACTION of the ones that you could grow, in fact. The traditional small tennis-ball size is represented by old favourites such as ‘Moneymaker’, which are okay, though some of them can taste a bit ‘soggy tennis-ball-ish’ unless you are eating them straight off the plant.
The big beefsteak kinds are lovely for hearty salads and summer dishes, but can be a little trickier to grow, I find. My preference is for the cherry tomatoes like ‘Sungold’, ‘Gardener’s Delight’, ‘Alicante’ or ‘Sweet Aperitif’ – they are generally easy to grow, more resistant to a nasty disease called Tomato Blight, and delicious for the kitchen.
2. Seed Sowing
Sow tomato seeds in March and April.
Fill a little pot with compost, firm it down and water it. Scatter a FEW seeds over the surface, and cover them with a thin layer of compost or better still, vermiculite or fine grit.
Put the pot on a sunny windowsill and seedling should start to come in about a fortnight.
3. Pricking out and Potting On
Once the seedlings are large enough to handle by holding their leaves, gently unearth them using a little dibber – a pencil is fine, actually – trying not to touch the stem or roots, just the leaves. Move each seedling into its own pot or module of compost (‘pricking out’), and grow them on, still inside, until their roots are coming through the drainage holes.
Some gardeners like to make sure that they have a bit of air blowing round them – perhaps a fan going? – to imitate an outdoor breeze, which makes their stems grow stronger. I like to stroke my hand over them for the same reason – and they already smell rather nice!
Pot them on into bigger pots, and at this point, I think it’s really helpful to bury the stems in compost right up to the bottom set of leaves. This makes your plants grow more roots which will feed the plant, and help it become more stable.
If you live ‘oop north’ or in a decidedly cold spot, you may be best to grow your toms in a sunny porch or front window.
If you’re going to grow them out of doors, gradually accustom them to outdoor conditions by leaving them out during the day and bringing them in at night. Don’t plant them out in the soil until all danger of frost is over in your area. Put canes into the ground as supports before you start planting.
4. Looking after the plants
Unless your tomato packet says that your variety is specifically a ‘bush’ tomato, what you’re aiming for is to grow your tomatoes on one stem. If you allow a lot of leafy shoots to grow, the plant is having so much fun that it sort of forgets that it is supposed to be growing tomatoes!
So loosely tie in the main stem as it grows with soft twine, every 4-6″ (10-15 cm), and watch out for little shoots that grow out from just above each leaf. Snip these off or pinch them out, and your tomato plant will be encouraged to keep heading upwards, setting little trusses of flowers, and therefore fruit, as it goes.
Watering is important, and one good way of making sure that it gets to the roots is to sink plant pots into the compost near your tomato plants and fill them up with water daily, early in the morning, or in the evening.
Once the flowers have begun to show on the little branches coming out for the main stem (‘trusses’), start feeding your plants with tomato fertiliser once a week, if you have some. Tomato fertiliser is high in phosphorus, and is just the ticket for lots of flowering plants, actually. Also, start taking off the bottom leaves below the bottom truss – they start to look a bit manky, anyway, and they are the first to show signs of fungal disease.
Tomatoes certainly can get a range of problems, including blight which manifests itself as brown patches on the leaves and stems and fatally weakens the plant. Even Monty Don got blight on his tomatoes a couple of years ago! It is more common in wet summers. If you see a few tell-tale patches, try and slow its progress by removing and destroying the affected bits. If you can get hold of a variety that is resistant to blight, so much the better.
Once your plants have set 4 trusses of flowers/fruit (in my greenhouse, I let them go to 6 trusses, but I’m greedy like that!), snip off the top of your plant. You want it now JUST to concentrate on ripening the remaining fruit.
If you do end up with a load of fruit which just won’t turn from green to red at the end of the summer, pick them and stick them in a drawer with a banana. That usually works, though I think they do lose their flavour a bit. Or make green tomato chutney!
If you missed the first five posts in our Beginners Veg series, you can read them here:
3. Broad beans
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