Top Tomatoes

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They’re our favourite summer crop, coming in a remarkable range of colours, shapes and sizes. Now’s the time to start thinking about starting tomatoes off

Ask any gardener what their favourite home-grown summer crop is and I’d wager that a good 90 per cent will pick the tomato. Regularly topping the veg gardening league tables, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that tomatoes remain so popular. Tomatoes are all the more flavoursome when garden grown and, with considerably more than 500 varieties worldwide from which to choose, it’s going to be a number of summers before anyone tires of these character-laden beauties!

The humble tomato has come a long way since its introduction to Europe almost five centuries ago. Hailing from South America, it was originally viewed as a potentially lethal plant, grown more as an object of curiosity than a serious food crop. Those who risked eating the shiny fruits did so at their own peril; the ‘wolf’s peach’, as it was known in Elizabethan times, was red for a reason – surely it had to be poisonous?! Some brave soul clearly tried the fruits and after finding them rather tasty (and failing to keel over) our love affair with this generous plant began.

Where to start?

Today the gardener is spoiled by the staggering range of tomato varieties available to grow. Firstly there’s the shape of fruit. As well as the common round tomato there are chunky, almost meaty beefsteak varieties (perfect for slicing as generous wedges into salads); cherry tomatoes for popping straight into the mouth from the plant, and ideal for containers and hanging baskets; tiny ultra-sweet pea-sized fruits for children or sweet-toothed adults; and longer, sausage-shaped plum tomatoes for all manner of kitchen uses.

There’s also the rainbow of colours. For rich flavour it’s hard to beat the classic red tomato, chock full of health-boosting lycopene and the gentle acidity that gives the fruit its unbeatable aroma.
That said, it is well worth giving one of the yellow varieties a try as these are less acidic and milder to taste. Deep red, near-black fruits add a touch of the gothic, while striped tomatoes combine a gastronomic and visual feast. There are even creamy white varieties to grow.

For many gardeners the main reason for growing tomatoes is the chance to experiment and try out some of the weird and wonderful offerings out there. Older heirloom tomatoes bred over many years will give the greatest range of fruit options, while modern F1 hybrids yield. Whatever you opt for, home-grown tomatoes will combine aroma and flavour in ways you just won’t be able to find in the supermarket.

Growing options

If you’ve never grown tomatoes before you are in for a pleasant surprise as they are easy to grow and the seeds will readily germinate. Just four or five plants will provide punnet-loads of ripe fruit with some spare to turn into batches of delicious tomato sauce for freezing. So let’s make 2013 the year you get to love the tomato!

Plants are available as either bush or vine types. Bush tomatoes are arguably easier to grow, requiring little more than a sturdy supporting stake to keep them from toppling over. Vine tomatoes are the usual choice for growing under the cover of a greenhouse or other structure. Vine types need regular tying in to their supports and the side shoots – those shoots that develop from where a leaf joins the main stem of a plant – will need to be removed as they appear. Bush tomatoes tend to crop a little earlier than vine tomatoes, while vine tomatoes tend to carry on for much longer towards the end of the season, often continuing right up until the first frost kills the plant off. Satisfying results can be had in any outdoor position that enjoys full sun and is relatively sheltered. The soil should be full of nutrients and moisture-retentive, so dig in plenty of home-made compost or well-rotted manure a few months before planting and top up with a generous scattering of organic fertiliser a week before planting your tomatoes out. If you’re growing outside avoid spots where tomatoes or potatoes grew the previous season, as potential pest and disease problems crop could be carried over to the new crop.

Some varieties fare better than others outdoors, so pick a tried-and-tested outdoor type such as the early and superbly flavoured ‘Alicante’ or the sweet, yellow fruits of ‘Golden Sunrise’, or look for suitability to outdoor conditions in the variety’s description. Don’t be afraid to try something new – that’s half the fun!

Of course, tomatoes are the quintessential greenhouse crop and most varieties will give more toms under these warmer conditions. Greenhouse growing also enables an earlier start. Plants can be grown in the greenhouse bed, in large pots or grow bags. A clever halfway house (literally!) is the tailor-designed tomato house, which can simply be popped over the young plants when they go into their final positions and left in place all season. But while tomatoes love the warmth, they won’t appreciate scalding from the sun’s concentrated rays on a hot day. If you’re growing them in the greenhouse consider painting on a summer shading solution at the start of summer. This can be washed off in the autumn and will prevent scorching meanwhile.

TOP TIP: Warm up greenhouse borders by watering the soil a few weeks before planting out time. Moist soil warms up quicker than dry soil. Adding compost to the ground also helps as its dark colour absorbs heat more efficiently.

Growing from seed

If you plan on growing just a few plants you may find it more economical to buy in young plants when they become available. This also saves time but the trade-off is that your choice of varieties is dramatically limited. Tomato seeds are very easy to germinate, while raising from seed will enable you to explore the full variety on offer.

To start seed off, fill pots or seed trays with seed compost, firming down as you fill. Space your seeds individually over the surface then cover with a 0.5cm layer of finely sieved compost or vermiculite. Label the pot with the variety name so you don’t forget. Place the pot into a tray of water and allow the water to soak up from the base until beads of moisture appear at the top. Now transfer this to a propagator and keep the seeds at about 18-21oC to germinate. Alternatively, place a clear polythene bag over the pot (supermarket vegetable bags do the job fine) and secure with an elastic bag. Pots can be started off on a warm windowsill. Your seeds will not need watering again until after germination, which takes up to 10 days.

Keep seedlings in a bright position but out of direct sunlight to grow on. A warm greenhouse is perfect but a windowsill is equally sufficient – you will just have to turn the seedlings every now and then to prevent them leaning in one direction towards the light. Once the first set of seedling leaves has completely unfurled the seedlings can be pricked out into individual 7cm pots by very carefully easing them out of the old pot using a pencil and transferring them to their new home. Grow them on in these containers until roots show at the bottom of the pot then move them on again into 12cm pots of multipurpose compost.

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