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How to grow the tastiest tomatoes

How to grow the tastiest tomatoes

It is a rare gardener that has never tried to grow tomatoes at least once. And no wonder – nothing compares with the taste of sun-ripened, freshly picked tomatoes. I rarely buy tomatoes, in winter and spring, because they are so disappointing compared to my home-grown crops in summer and autumn. Part of the reason they taste so good at home is that they are picked when ripe but it is also because of the varieties I can choose. It is a subject open to  debate but I also think that growing them and feeding them the way I like also affects the flavour.

You can grow tomatoes in the soil or in containers of compost, including growing bags. Many people prefer to grow them in soil, either outside or in the greenhouse border. The advantage is that watering is less onerous and crucial – they won’t dry out as rapidly as in pots and growing bags. But there is a risk of disease if you grow them in the same spot every year. In greenhouses it is good practice to dig out the border soil and replace it, to a depth of 30cm, every few years if you have to grow tomatoes in the same spot.

If you grow in bags or pots you will be using fresh compost every year, and there is much less risk of root disease, which is why commercial growers developed this system. But because a full grown tomato plant needs lots of water, you need to pay careful attention to watering in summer and, of course, you have to provide fertiliser at least once a week.

Tomatoes are killed by frost and they don’t like cool temperatures either.  You can sow and plant, and get earlier crops in a greenhouse or polytunnel. The extra heat boosts early growth and speeds up ripening too. Even plastic mini-greenhouses capture heat and ensure a good crop and most are big enough for three plants in a growing bag. But make sure you ventilate them well in sunny weather – they can get very hot. Another huge advantage of growing in a polytunnel or greenhouse is that blight, the most serious disease of tomatoes, can be largely prevented if the leaves are kept dry, under cover.

Blight – Resistant varieties: “Fandango’, ‘Legend’, ‘Fantasio’, ‘Ferline’, ‘Latah’, ‘Losetto’ and ‘Berry’. 

Tomatoes of all sizes and colours are either indeterminate (cordon) or determinate (bush). Indeterminate tomatoes are just that: the growing tip keeps on growing all summer and the sideshoots have to be removed. The plants can grow to 2m or more high. We usually pinch out the growing tip after four or five flower clusters (trusses). They potentially carry much heavier crops than the determinate kinds, and there is a bigger choice of varieties but they do need support and training.

Determinate kinds have a flower cluster at the end of each short shoot and the plants are naturally dwarf and bushy. They are suitable for baskets or window boxes. They do not need pinching out or any training. They crop earlier than the indeterminate kinds but tend to crop for a short period and there are fewer varieties.

What kind?

Tomato fruits vary from 10g to 1kilo or more. Most people like cherry or mini-plum tomatoes and these are ideal for your first tomatoes. They tend to ripen early and are easy to pick and eat – often few actually make it back into the kitchen! Large, beefsteak tomatoes produce far fewer tomatoes and they are usually among the last to ripen, and are best grown under cover.

I like the firm-fleshed mini-plums such as ‘Floridity’. They tend not to split as easily as cherry tomatoes and are easy to grow and pick. I grow lots of kinds every year but the one that I grow every year is ‘Sungold’ which is orange, sweet and totally delicious. It does split when ripe so is not one you can buy in the supermarket – please give it a try. ‘Rosella’ is another that I grow most years, with slightly larger fruits in dark pinkish brown and ultra-sweet.

Growing from seed or plants

Tomatoes are easy grown from seed, even on a windowsill to begin with. They need good light and warmth though. I usually sow in the middle of March but it is not too late to sow now – but get your skates on. Sow this weekend and the plants will be perfect for planting in the greenhouse or outside at the end of May.

Tomato plants are also available to buy now. These small plants will need protection from frost. Buying plants saves some hassle but you will not get the selection you could try if growing from seeds.

Many tomato seeds are F1 hybrids which are quite expensive and you may only get five seeds in a packet. Though this may put you off, consider that you don’t need more than that for a couple of growing bags and what will you do with the extra 100 seeds in a pack of ‘Money Maker’? That said, tomato seeds store very well so if you have an opened pack from last year it is worth sowing them.

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