20 August 2014


Tomatoes, like their relatives potatoes and aubergines, were brought to Europe by the conquistadors. Apparently the Spanish originally regarded these small round fruits as more decorative than edible. When the Spanish governed the Kingdom of Naples in the sixteenth century, they took tomatoes with them, and it was the (hungry) Neopolitan peasants who first started eating tomatoes, or so the story goes. Today tomatoes are a huge part of Italian culinary culture, and the habit of eating tomatoes has spread throughout Europe.

Tomatoes thrive in the Mediterranean climate, and virtually all commercial growers in the UK, along with many amateur gardeners, grow their tomatoes under glass. Often, for commercial growers, in a carefully controlled environment, which allows for a long harvest season (albeit at the expense of taste). It is, however, possible to grow tomatoes outside in the UK - often with considerable success (at least in the southern England). If you get your timing right, you should have about six to eight weeks of harvest in August and September, just as summer ebbs into autumn. Home-grown tomatoes usually have a wonderful flavour, far superior to most of those available in the shops in the UK.

For outdoor tomatoes, sow your seeds in mid-March in seed trays. These should be covered in plastic, or popped into a plastic bag, and put somewhere warm until the seeds germinate. Once the seedlings are strong enough to be handled (which is when they have two normal leaves) pot them on into small pots, still keeping them indoors. Tomatoes are not frost hardy, and can be stunted by cold temperatures, so be careful when introducing them to the garden. I start acclimatising the small tomato plants to the outside in early to mid May, depending on the weather. At first I just leave them in a cold frame on warm, still days, bringing them inside at night. Watch out for the wind, which can easily damage the young plants. After about five days of this they can be left outside at night, in the cold frame with the lid closed. Open the lid on warm days. At this point the tomatoes should be growing rapidly, and will soon outgrow the cold frame.

By about late May or early June the nights should have warmed sufficiently for the tomato plants to be removed from the cold frame. At about this time, they will need potting on to larger pots (I usually use 30cm diameter pots). Tomatoes can also be planted in the ground. I did this one year, and they were very successful. Because I have limited space in my veg plot, however, I tend to grow tomatoes in pots. Whether in the ground or in pots, position the tomatoes in the sunniest spot you can. Tomatoes like sun.

Tomatoes have two growing habits, 'determinate' (or 'bush') and 'indeterminate' (or 'cordon').  Your seed packet should tell you which type you have. Determinate tomatoes grow in a compact bushy form, and can more or less be left to their own devices. Indeterminate tomatoes have a vine-like growing habit, and will produce side-shoots which should be removed, or 'pinched-out'. Both types will need some support from a garden cane or two, particularly once they start to set fruit. Loosely tie the stems to the cane.

By about late June, tiny green tomatoes will appear on your plants. Tomatoes are hungry beasts, and once fruits appear, you should start feeding them. Garden centres sell special tomato feed, including organic varieties. Feed the tomatoes weekly, or as per the instructions on the feed. The tomatoes should start to ripen towards the end of July or early August. By about mid-August, I pinch the tops out of the plants, so they concentrate on growing fruit. Depending on location and weather, outdoor tomatoes usually stop ripening by mid to late September, although with a warm autumn and a particularly sunny, sheltered spot they may continue to ripen into October. You will be left with lots of unripe, green tomatoes. You can ripen some of these in a bowl indoors, or use them to make green tomato chutney, which is quite delicious.

In the sometimes damp UK climate, late blight can be a real problem for tomatoes from late July onwards. In the very wet summer of 2012, most of my tomato plants were ruined by blight just as the tomatoes started to ripen. If you find brown patches on the stems, leaves and/or fruits of your tomato plants, blight is probably the cause. Once blight takes hold, there disease spreads quickly and there is not a lot that can be done about it. However, if the weather gets damp in August, you can spray your tomatoes with Bordeaux mixture, which reduces the risk of the plants catching blight. Bordeaux mixture is a fungicide made primarily from copper sulphate (which gives it alarming blue colour) and slaked lime, and is compatible with organic gardening. If you do get blight, it is advisable not to compost the affected plants, as the virus can survive in blighted fruit. For this reason, if tomatoes planted directly in the ground catch blight, you should be very careful not to let any of the blighted fruits get incorporated into your soil.

Over the years, I have tried growing a range of varieties outside. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Marmandes. I like a large meaty tomato. Because of their size, many large varieties do not do well in the British climate. Marmandes are the exception. A large tasty tomato, which will give a high yield, it is equally good sliced raw or cooked.
  • Sweet baby. I tried this new variety from Thompson and Morgan for the first time this year. Sweet baby is at the opposite end of the size spectrum from marmandes: small, cherry-sized tomatoes with a good sweet flavour. They are lovely in a salad. The flavour intensifies when lightly roasted.
  • Matina. A medium-sized tomato with good flavour. This tomato is always the first to ripen, often about a week before most other varieties I grow. Available from the Organic Seed catalogue. It also seems to display some blight resistance.
  • Orange Bourgoin. A medium-sized yellow tomato. It has a crisp sweet flavour, and provides a good colour contrast in a tomato salad. This variety also ripens earlier than most.
  • Principe Borghese. A miniature plum tomato, with tasty solid flesh and not a lot of seeds. Although this is an Italian variety, which I got from Franchi seeds, it seems to do well in the English climate. Principe Borghese makes a good sauce, and is excellent roasted.

I tend to use home-grown tomatoes in fairly simple dishes, where their flavour stands out, such as a tomato salad with burrata, or a simple tomato sauce with pasta. Recipes on the blog using tomatoes include: tagliatelle with tomatoes, courgette and mozzarella, green tomato chutney, pickled green tomatoes and piccalilli.

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