Sunday, 2 March 2008

Home Grown Tomatoes

Having an abundance of seasonal, fresh vegetables changes the way you use them. Their seductive flavour frequently means they become a far more important part of a meal.

Growing them can be hugely satisfying and there is one vegetable you can never have too many of: home grown tomatoes. They are bursting with goodness, sunshine and anti-ageing properties.

Choose your varieties now, ready for sowing in a couple of weeks (for indoor tomatoes) to get a bumper crop.

How do you train and "stop" the plants, and why?

The simplest method to train the taller varieties is to suspend one vertical piece of string from the ceiling per plant and tie it loosely just below the lowest leaves.

Then, as it grows, twist the top of the plant around the string. I use an individual cane per plant outdoors but you could use a system of vertical posts and horizontal wires.

Remove the side shoots with your fingertips as soon as they appear so that all the energy goes into producing fruit from the truss. And when three to eight trusses have set fruit, "stop" the plant by pinching out the main shoot two leaves above the top flowering.

Exactly at which point you stop (or perhaps in sunny warm places do not stop at all) depends on whether the plants are indoors or outside. Trials have been carried out using both methods and it was discovered that the non-stopped plants produced many more fruit but very few of them ripened, whereas the stopped plants bore more ripe fruit. In a good summer, outside, you can ripen four to five trusses.

Joy Larkcom, a vegetable expert and author, lets some of her indoor plants grow unstopped and she is still picking a few now. Some years she picks her last ones as she sows her next crop. In sunny Japan, a gardener grew one tomato plant as a specimen (giving it near perfect conditions).

He merely supported it without stopping and it grew to over 12ft by 12ft and produced 16,054 tomatoes!

Are grow bags effective?

If you grow three plants in a grow bag, you can end up watering three times a day. If you do use them, two plants are a better bet. Just cut out a small patch in the top for the plant as opposed to making a wide slit.

Blossom end rot (where the base of the fruit goes brown or black) is a common problem caused by under- or over-watering, which adversely affects the plant's calcium supply. It is often exacerbated by the cramped conditions in a grow bag. If you cannot grow in the soil or are short of time, larger individual pots (a minimum size is 9in or 23cm) are better in my experience.

Which are the best varieties?

Garden Organic have a great range of heritage tomatoes, and they recommend Peace Vine, which is a small, wild type producing masses of 2-3cm tomatoes with a sweet, tangy flavour. Gardeners' Delight is prolific, easy and very tasty, but my favourites are the Japanese varieties, Momotaro, which translates as "Tough Boy" (a large tomato), and "Aiko" a cherry tomato.

In Japan, nearly all supermarket tomatoes are labelled by variety and I have never eaten a flavourless one. Blight resistant varieties will be big this year too: Ferline, Fantasio and Legend.

Is it worth growing grafted ones?

Sutton Seeds are selling grafted plants this year. They have selected vigorous disease-resistant rootstocks and have grafted tasty varieties on top, which, on their trial grounds last year, were resilient enough to grow through the blight.

They are offering three varieties: Conchita, a large cherry; Dasher, a tasty mini plum; and Elegance, a standard tomato with great flavour. The vigour of the rootstock means you produce fruit earlier (by two to three weeks) and for longer and they are more resistant to disease. I am growing all three this year, both indoors and outside in a sheltered spot.

Joy Larkcom believes it is worth using grafted plants in certain situations. She points out that, especially when you grow plants in the same soil, you can often suffer from unnoticed soil sickness. When she moved house (and greenhouse), she was stunned at the bumper crops which grew in the fresh soil.

The more vigorous rootstocks would be extremely useful if grown in a greenhouse, where it is more difficult to change the soil frequently.

What can be done about the dreaded blight?

Some gardeners declared that they would give up growing outdoor tomatoes after last year's blight. I love the outdoor varieties and strangely did not get blighted, perhaps because I grew them against a dry, sunny hedge (which is normally frowned upon).

Bob Sherman, from Garden Organic, recommends picking off affected leaves, which helps slow the disease. This, in conjunction with using grafted tomatoes in a sheltered place, should mean you can produce copious tasty tomatoes outside.

What about whitefly?

Yellow sticky strips are useful in the early stages, then bring in French Marigolds which, when they are in flower, deter the pests. Keep dead heading the marigolds to maintain flowering.

Any other useful tips?

High potassium feeds promote fruiting, but don't overdo it as too much will make for tough tomato skins. Avoid over-watering your plants too, as it dilutes the flavour. Keep them on the dry side in the early stages to help early fruiting. To ripen off your end-of-season outdoor plants, remove the support and carefully lay them on plastic on the ground and then cover them with a cloche.

Alternatively, lift up by the roots and hang them in the greenhouse or indoors.

Do not sow your seeds too late: for indoor tomatoes the end of February to mid-March is good, and for outdoor ones, sow indoors no later than the first week of April.

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