There are three keys to successful tomato growing, two of which which would horrify most gardeners. They are:
Tomatoes should be grown in the same place year after year.
They like to be fed on a liquid feed made from their own leaves.
Surprising I know, but these techniques have stood me in good stead for years. Especially when faced with the dreaded late blight, the fungal disease that is a killer for tomatoes and endemic in the South of England. My tomatoes do not suffer from this because I stick rigidly with these two golden rules. My crops get better and better.
There is a third key to success with single stem or ‘cordon’ varieties and that is pinching out the side shoots. This is critical and must be attended to regularly throughout the life of the plant.
I recommend growing what are called ‘cordon’ or ‘intermediate’ varieties rather than ‘bush’. The former are plants that have one central stem and get tall. They are easy to manage (the golden rule being pinching out the side shoots – that is ALL) while the bush types are allowed to run wild with no pinching out and get very messy. All my recommended varieties are cordon types.
Brandywine. Everyone loves a beefsteak tomato and that is what Brandywine is, and by far the best tasting at that. Whether it is for slicing on top of a burger or as a salad with mozzarella cheese, Brandywine has the most delicate of flavours and a gorgeous consistency, like velvet, in the mouth. There are many other beefsteak tomatoes but Brandywine and her relation Pink Brandywine, stand out in the crowd.
Black Cherry. Another cherry tomato that, like Gardener’s Delight, is a very consistent cropper. Lots of very sweet fruit that are slightly larger, almost ping pong ball size and a rich red/brown in colour.
Gardener’s Delight. A very old favourite that is certain to satisfy time and time again. It is a cherry tomato that to my mind gives plenty of versatility. It is sweet, a handy size and ripens consistently through the truss. In other words the fruits on the sprig will come ripe over a period of a few days. That enables you to harvest it whole and even cook it whole if you wish. I often roast my tomatoes before making various sauces. It gives them a strong and deliciously intense flavour. I grow more of this variety than any other as it gives such a good return from each plant.
Harbinger. This is an old ‘normal’ size tomato that has excellent flavour and bears lots of fruit. Few of the modern varieties have the deep, rich taste of old fashioned types which have stood the test of times over the years.
Tomatoes grow very well in both garden beds and in containers. They are willing growers and don’t mind having their roots restricted. Pot culture is good because it means you can achieve accurate distribution of feed via the watering can. And tomatoes need to be fed.
The keys to the soil are balanced nutrients good drainage. Therefore a potting mix for a container would be an equal mix of garden soil, homemade compost and a grit or vermiculite for the drainage. In the garden you have what you have in terms of soil, just add a good dollop of compost before you plant, a shovel full in and around the planting hole will suffice.
The feeding should be done via the watering and if at all possible will be made from comfrey. This is a herb that holds high levels of potash and some nitrogen if grown in good garden soil and potash (potassium; k) is beloved of the tomato family.
There are likely too many seeds in a tomato packet (and they don’t keep for more than one season) so you may prefer to buy plug plants or ‘plantlets’ which many organic seed companies offer now. The plants will arrive by post. Unpack them and plant them into 9cm pots immediately in either your own homemade compost or a coir potting compost. It will take a fortnight to three weeks before the roots have reached the walls of the post and are holding the compost together and only then can they be planted into their final home.
If it is seed then the key is warmth at germination. Sow them in a half seed tray or 9cm pot and keep them on the kitchen windowsill. Heat from underneath is not necessary for tomatoes but they like a warm room and light. I put a pane of glass over my seed trays. It keeps the heat in. Keep a close eye out and remove it when they seeds have germinated which will take a week.
Once the seed has germinated and two long, thin pointed leaves are visible and large enough to handle its time to prick them out into a 9cm pot. Fill the pot to just below the rim with compost (as per the plantlets above) and form it down with another pot. With a pencil or a dibber make a hole in which you can drop the seedling to the point where the leaves are 1cm or so from the surface of the compost. Nudge the compost around seedling and tap the pot with both hands to settle everything down. Then water with a watering can with a fine rose on it. Remember to handle the seedling by the leaf only. It is too delicate to be grasped by the stem. This is an across the board rule.
As you grow them on keep the pots in the warm and in the light. They are very sensitive to warmth at this stage and will quite quickly go blue (literally!) if they get cold. This will check their growth. If you are growing them in the house or greenhouse/polytunnel they won’t need hardening off but if they are going outside, even on a balcony they need a gentle introduction.
Planting out and staking and crop care
Once you have decided on a position you need to work out how you are going to support what may turn into a 2m high plant. Traditionally this is done by hanging a string down from above in a greenhouse or polytunnel. If you are growing tomatoes in the garden or in a pot you will need to tie the plant to a stake.
This stake needs to be driven into the ground or the container soil BEFORE planting. You cannot plant the plant and then drive the stake through its roots!
Sturdy bamboo canes are good for this. You do have control over how high your plant reaches. In tomato growing the management of the plant is measured in how many flower trusses it produces. On the main stem a tomato plant produces a truss at roughly nine inch intervals thus a six foot plant will produce 8 trusses. When the plant reaches six foot you ‘stop’ it by pinching out the growing tip. This concentrates its energy into fruit ripening.
Planting out is done when the roots of the plant are showing through the bottom of the 9cm pot. This is a fairly strong indication that the pot is filling nicely with roots. Turn the pot over, tap out the root ball and if it holds together it is ready. If not then return it to the post and leave it for another week. Tomatoes are very forgiving in terms of their roots and how they are handled so you won’t be causing any trouble if the plant is not ready and needs more time.
Give a shovelful of compost at planting and be sure to firm the plant in. Then give it a good watering. This is very important as it settles the soil around the roots and gives it a proper start.
Tomatoes like water at their roots, not on their foliage. The leaves are better kept dry. Rain is ok but in the greenhouse, polytunnel or under cover of any kind water and liquid feed at soil level only.
Crop care and pinching out
As tomatoes grow they produce side shoots between the main stem and the leaf. On cordon plants these must be removed. They are completely different from the flower trusses which are produced on the side of the stem and nowhere near the leaf/stem joint. These must be left at all costs. The side shoots simply get nipped out with thumb and index finger. Put them in the bucket, they are the beginnings of the liquid feed.
Be sure to support the plant by tying it loosely into the supporting stake or winding it around the string that hangs down from above.
Most plants that are grown in containers need to be fed. It is a simple rule of thumb in the organic gardening book. There is not enough food in a pot of soil/compost to allow them to produce to their best. Tomatoes fall into this category and also need to be fed if they are grown in the soil. There are organic tomato feeds out there but undoubtedly the best is the one you make yourself. In an ideal world this is made from the old tomato leaves and comfrey. It is easy to grow in all garden soils and if you have room then it’s a must in the garden.
Making your own Tomato feed
As the tomato plant reaches four to five feet in height there will be visible green fruits and lots more flower trusses. This is the moment to begin feeding. The lower leaves will have begun to yellow and discolour. These, along with any pinched out side shoots should be put in a bucket and covered with water. After a week a gloopy, viscous and foul-smelling brew will be the result. This should be mixed 50:50 with water and fed at the root zone of the plant weekly.
Tomatoes give a fairly good indication of when they are ready through the colour of their fruit. No secrets here. As the autumn moves on and ripening slows down, it is very important that the plant is stopped as mentioned above. If the fruits stubbornly refuse to turn red as the days shorten you can harvest the fruits and put them in a drawer in a warm room in the house. They may ripen. Otherwise its green tomato chutney.
PESTS AND DISEASES
The air, water and soil-borne fungus called late blight is the worst problem faced by tomatoes. The good thing is that it is unlikely to appear before August. Brown spots may appear on both leaves and fruit. Lower leaf removal as discussed in FEEDING (above) will help. If it is bad then cut all the leaves off and make feed from them (this will not spread the fungus). Once it gets into the fruit the game’s up and you must remove all the plants and put them on the bonfire.
Blossom End Rot
Sometimes the bottom of the fruit can be afflicted by a black spot the size of a penny piece. Its not the end of the world and will not ruin the whole fruit. But it does not look good. It’s a nutrient deficiency and will be solved the following year through good additions of compost to the bed. Tomatoes are hungry and the soil needs replenishing as well as the plant needs feeding through the season.
Clouds of little white flies can often take a fancy to the tomato crop. The planting of French marigolds in the vicinity of the tomato plants discourages them. This is one of the most useful companion planting excercises to carry out. It really works.
Storage and Preserving
Tomato sauces are the best way to keep tomatoes because they freeze well after cooking. Bottle preserving of whole fruit is another way and useful because the fruits do not keep for a long time once harvested.