Home grown tomatoes take skill and patience from sowing to harvesting but the rewards of tasting a fully ripe tomato whether a cherry type, beefsteak or my favourite Alicante make it all very worthwhile. The crops from an unheated cold greenhouse may not be ready till mid summer, unless the weather is in your favour, but the wait is always worthwhile when you can savour that first tomato ripened on your own vine. The supermarkets prefer to buy in tomatoes just turning colour as they are still very firm and travel well without damage, but at a great loss to flavour. Out of season tomatoes get a lot less sun and are virtually devoid of flavour, only suitable for cooking.
Come mid summer when we get a glut of our cherry tomatoes, they ripen faster than we can eat them, but they are so sweet that they are perfect for snacking on in between meals, and young kids just love them. No summer salad is complete without some freshly picked ripe tomato.
Eat them fresh at every opportunity, but summer gluts allow us to have them fried with our cooked breakfast, the beefsteak types are perfect for stuffing, and gluts of courgettes and other summer vegetables can combine together for the ratatouille. Summer gluts of fresh tomatoes will make a gorgeous tomato soup which can also be frozen for use when the season is over. Tomatoes will also freeze very well as whole fruits, and then they can be skinned easily for use after thawing.
Selection of varieties depends on where they are to be grown and your own personal favourites. Tomatoes can now be used in tubs and hanging baskets using tumbler and dwarf bush varieties and traditional types can be red, yellow or orange and come as large fruits, (Shirley and Alicante), huge fruits (beafsteaks), small fruits (plum varieties and Gardeners Delight) and very small such as the cherry types. My favourite has always been Sweet Million as it is very sweet and produces long trusses with loads of fruit on them.
Propagation and growing
I sow my seed at the end of February, but grow them on a sunny windowsill until the unheated greenhouse warms up a bit. However, sometimes the electric fan heater gets turned on if an unexpected cold snap occurs. If you have a heated greenhouse, or if it is lined with bubble polythene to conserve heat, then go for a January sowing. This should then bring cropping forward considerably. Sow thinly in seed trays in warm conditions then prick out into small individual pots when they are big enough to handle. They need plenty of warmth and light to keep them sturdy, but do not feed them at this stage.
Plant out when the first flower truss appears into growbags, pots, borders and nowadays there is a return to the use of strawbales as a growing medium.
Put a support system in place if growing them as cordons.
Start feeding half strength when the first truss has set, then progressively go to full strength. Give a feed every second watering. Tomato fertiliser is high in potassium which helps fruiting, so sometimes in late summer it is a good idea to give a high nitrogen feed to maintain good growth.
Remove sideshoots as they appear and keep the stems well supported. Stop the growing point after the fourth to sixth truss depending on weather. In a poor year the cold greenhouse only ripens up four trusses, but a good summer will allow at least six.
Tomatoes love plenty of water so do not ever let them go dry, especially when you are away on holiday.
Pests and diseases
Blossom end rot is mainly a problem with careless watering when the trusses get wet or if the soil has gone too dry. Botrytis and potato blight are a problem in a cold wet summer like last year, but it helps to keep the greenhouse well ventilated to prevent any build up of condensation.
Keep an eye out for greenfly, whitefly or red spider and spray with whatever is available from your garden centre. They are not normally a big problem.
Plant of the week
Anemone blanda is a very easy to grow plant producing a carpet of blue daisy flowers in early March. When it appears you know spring is here. You only need a few plants to get started as it multiplies very easily from seed or splitting up the dormant rhizomes in mid summer. However it does not get invasive as it is easily controlled. It will grow in full sun or partial shade and likes a well drained moist soil which has had plenty of compost added in the past. It is perfect for deciduous woodland that gets sun ahead of the canopy and there is plenty leafmold in the top few inches. It is the perfect partner for cyclamen hederifolium which comes into growth as the Anemone dies down, then it dies down in early spring when the anemone needs the light.