TOMATOES

HOW TO GROW TOMATOES

  The tomato is a much-loved fixture on UK plots and it isn’t hard to see why. The plants are easy to get going, quick to reach maturity and once they start producing their flavoursome fruits there’s no stopping them! There is a variety to fit every space: compact cherry tomatoes for hanging baskets by the front door; vigorous-growing vine toms for both greenhouse and outdoor cultivation in pots, grow bags or in the ground. There are even succulent, meaty plum and beefsteak types on stocky, bush-like plants that need little support – making them great for busy gardeners looking for a low-maintenance variety. They’re even attractive enough to be a slotted into an ornamental plot or grown next to a flower bed.Tomatoes originated from a warm area of South America before they were introduced to southern Europe. Few crops have been developed over the years to give such a range of habits, flavours and colours as these delicious, exotic fruits. There are literally hundreds of different varieties of tomato to try, giving rise to many devotees to this well-travelled fruiting plant. As well as standard red toms, you can sink your teeth into yellow, striped, near-black and creamcoloured ones too. You’ll find that biting into a delicious homegrown tom is a million miles away from eating supermarket tomatoes, which are bred for shelf-life and uniformity rather than flavour. F1 hybrid tomato seed promises outstanding performance, often combining vigour, taste and disease resistance to give troublefree crops. But it is also worth seeking out the older, heirloom varieties, which will let you enjoy many old favourites that you wouldn’t run into in Tomatoes thrive in a sheltered, sunny position. All varieties can be grown under the cover of a greenhouse or polytunnel but many are also suitable for outdoor cultivation so long as these growing requirements are met. Look out for those varieties described as suitable for outdoor growing or pick an old, reliable favourite such as ‘Shirley’ or the appropriately named ‘Outdoor Girl’. If growing in the soil outside, pick a spot where tomatoes or potatoes have not been sited within the past two years to reduce the chances of cropspecific pests and diseases, such as late blight, passing on to the new crop. 

Prepare the soil by digging it over and incorporating plenty of well-rotted organic matter such as home-made compost. Tomatoes perform best when given a nutrient-rich soil, so early preparations will go a long way to ensuring the best possible yields. Rake the soil level a week before planting, ready for your new occupants.Greenhouse-grown tomatoes will stand the best chance of success if they are introduced into a clean, sterile environment that’s free of overwintering pests so thoroughly clean all nooks and crannies within your greenhouse the winter before. Greenhouse growing allows an earlier start and will extend the season, meaning you’ll be left with more fruit. Plants can be grown in greenhouse beds or planted into pots or grow bags the shops.

  Tomato plants are ready to move into their final positions approximately seven to eight weeks after sowing. Work back from the usual date of your last frost – the end of May in the Midlands – and sow accordingly. This means sowing from the start of April for outdoor plants, but sowings can be made even earlier in March or late February for tomatoes that are to be grown in the greenhouse, or in milder parts of the southwest.Sow seeds into 7cm pots of seed compost. Fill pots up to within 1cm of the rim and gently pat the surface down. Water the pots thoroughly and allow them to drain, before spacing individual seeds at least 2cm apart. Cover seeds over with a 0.5cm layer of sieved seed compost or vermiculite and lightly water in using a watering can fitted with a fine rose. Move the pots to a propagator to germinate, or place a clear polythene bag over the tops of individual pots held away from the compost with sticks and secured in place using an elastic band. Tomatoes will germinate quickly at a temperature of around 20°C, so the top of a warm indoor window sill is ideal. Similarly a snug, warm airing cupboard can be a good environment, but check the pots daily for signs of growth and remove them as soon as germination occurs.Seedlings should break free of the compost surface within 10 days – often sooner. At this stage they should be removed from the propagator and placed in a bright position indoors. Only water the seedlings once the compost begins to dry – they will be fine for the first week or so.

  When the first adult leaves are just visible it is time to prick out your seedlings into separate 7cm pots. Fill the pots with multipurpose compost, firm gently, water well and leave overnight in the growing on area to raise the compost temperature (this deters damping off disease). Very carefully tease out seedlings from their germination pot – sliding the seed compost out of the pot to get at the young seedlings is the easiest way of doing this and will leave roots intact. Dibble holes into the new pots using a pencil and, holding each seedling by its leaves, lower the roots into the hole before feeding back with compost.

 As soon as the first flower trusses appear begin feeding plants regularly using an organic liquid tomato feed that is high in potash to encourage further flowering and fruiting. Allow up to six trusses to form on greenhouse cordon tomatoes or four on outdoor tomatoes; as soon as this number is reached pinch out the tops of plants. Tie in cordons as they grow onto their supports and pinch out sideshoots that form where leaf stalks join the main stem. If sideshoots are left to grow they will form a new branch, drawing energy away from fruit formation.Bush types of tomato form flowers and fruits at the end of each branch so do not require any tying in or removal of sideshoots. This makes them an attractive choice for time-poor gardeners! Some support can be given, though, to prevent plants sagging under the weight of their fruits.All tomatoes will need to be kept moist so that they grow steadily. This is particularly important once fruits begin to form, as sudden swings between bone-dry soil and moist conditions can cause rapid fruit-swell, forcing the skins to split open. Watering can be made a lot easier by sinking empty plant pots or inverted plastic drinks bottles cut in half into the soil right next to the base of the plant; pour your water and liquid feed into this to allow it to seep gradually into the soil or compost. Tomatoes can also be grown in bottomless pots positioned on top of grow bags or soil. The extra space leads to sturdier plants.Guard against whitefly, a common flying pest of tomatoes, by dotting brightly coloured French marigolds in-between plants. Their scent is thought to keep the flies at bay. Biological controls, such as the parasitic wasp Encarsia formosa, may also be used in an enclosed greenhouse environment. When introduced they attack the nymphs (the insects’ scale-like offspring), turning them black.

  The first tomatoes will be ready from early July and with regular picking there’s every chance you could be enjoying the fruits right up until the first frosts. Cut complete trusses of vine-ripening varieties using secateurs or hand-pick individual tomatoes. Avoid placing them in the fridge, as this will dampen their aroma and flavour. Regular liquid feeding will give your tomatoes the best possible taste – so don’t scrimp on this during the growing season – but at the same time, don’t overdo it!It is more than likely that some fruits will still be hanging around at the end of the season. Under-ripe fruits can be brought inside and placed into a brown paper bag with a ripe banana. The banana emits ethylene gas, which hastens ripening in the tomatoes. Excess ripe tomatoes can be turned into a home-made tomato sauce, which may then be frozen in batches for use during the winter months. Surplus green tomatoes can be made into chutney.