It’s been a fantastic year for tomatoes. After last season’s blight-hit summer, I’ve had a bumper crop, managed to dodge disease and discovered some great new varieties.
Growing tomatoes is more of an addiction than an annual crop for me, one of the first edibles I attempted and something that takes over not only the greenhouse but large parts of the garden.
This year, I grew nine different varieties, some old favourites, others seeds and plants I had been given to trial by different seed firms; you can read about the beginning of the season in ‘Tomatoes – a Growing Addiction’.
As in other years, I put two or three of each variety into growbags in the greenhouse – a way of safeguarding a sample of everything against blight. The rest go into pots and are lined up against the sunny back of the garage. This year, somehow, I ended up with more than 50 plants.
In a very non-scientific test, I put one plant into a pot filled with Dalefoot’s Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads, and another into one filled with my homemade compost mixed with some Soilfixer SF60; both products were sent for me to trial.
Did they make a difference? All the plants fruited well. The Dalefoot compost was definitely slower to dry out and the plants grew strongly. My own compost dried out quickly but the added boost of Soilfixer product did see the plants growing as well as any of the others despite the frequent ‘drought’ conditions. Next year, I will try mixing it with some of my usual multi-purpose, peat-free compost.
So, what of the all-important taste test? Again, a subjective measure but then taste always is.
For many years, ‘Sweet Million’ was my cherry tomato of choice but this year I was given seed for ‘Cherry Baby’ by Unwins and ‘Sweet Aperitif’ by Thompson & Morgan. ‘Cherry Baby’ was a definite winner with the family. Dainty fruit with a really sweet flavour – they were often eaten before they had left the garden.
‘Sweet Aperitif’ produced slightly firmer fruits with a good flavour but not as sweet as ‘Cherry Baby’.
Although the name, ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’, suggests one of the smaller fruiting tomatoes, actually they are larger than the others. Sent to me by Thompson & Morgan last year, it wasn’t particularly popular with the family but, as I had seed left, we decided to give it another try.
The colour is amazing, starting off purple and ripening to a deep red. We didn’t like them raw – not sweet enough and with a tougher skin – but this season we tried cooking them and they were much better with a good flavour.
Likewise, we decided ‘Montello’ from Marshalls is better cooked although it is sold as a baby plum tomato. For us, the texture was too ‘mushy’ for eating raw – great pan-fried, though.
‘San Marzano’ from Franchi Seeds (a seed I bought) is sold as a cooking tomato, one that Italians use for pasta sauce. Mine never seem to get as big as the picture on the packet suggests but they are reliable and have a good flavour.
One of the tomatoes I had been particularly keen to try was ‘Heinz 1370’ from the Dobies’ Rob Smith Range. A heritage variety, it is the tomato behind Heinz Tomato Sauce. It produced enormous fruit that were perfect for cooking – easier to skin than smaller varieties, good flavour and you need only a few for most recipes. I was sent plug plants to trial but am hoping to try growing these tomatoes from seed next season.
Another good cooker is ‘Principe Borghese’ from Franchi Seeds (another variety I bought). Again, the size makes it easy to skin – no fiddling around with hundreds of tiny tomatoes.
I was also sent plug plants of ‘Red Tiger’ by Thompson & Morgan, which proved to be another tomato with an interesting appearance. The stripy skin is quite thick but the flavour is good and it certainly gives a different look to a salad.
Finally, my favourite tomato last year was ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ from Franchi Seeds and it didn’t disappoint this season. Not the prettiest of tomatoes but little beats it for versatility or flavour. It’s one of the few big tomatoes that I like raw and it also cooks well – delicious roasted. It is definitely on my must-grow list for next year.
And what of the blight that hit many parts of the country? I did get some early in the season on a few tomatoes that I put into the main vegetable beds when I ran out of room and pots. They succumbed by mid-summer and were quickly removed, luckily before it spread to the rest of the crop. I’ve tried growing tomatoes in the ground in various sites in the garden over the years and each time they get blight. I won’t be trying again.
As for the rest of the crop, a few of the outdoor tomatoes were showing signs of blight by early October so we picked the fruit and cleared the lot. The greenhouse has only just been emptied and then only because it’s needed for other things.
There was a little green fruit left to ripen and that is now safely in the kitchen, gradually turning red.
One of the best things about tomatoes is that they are a versatile crop. You don’t need huge amounts of space – I potted up some tumbling varieties into a hanging basket for my Mum – and they really are something that tastes so much better fresh.
• Seed and tomato plants were sent in exchange for fair reviews by Unwins, Thompson & Morgan, Marshalls and Dobies.
With Apple Day approaching, I’ve been out to Snowshill Manor to find out about their heritage apples.
It’s the names as much as the flavour and sense of history that appeals to me about heritage apples. ‘Hoary Morning’, ‘Cat’s Head’, ‘Cow Apple’, somehow, they all seem so much more interesting than a mere ‘Granny Smith’.
Yet, few, if any, ever find their way to supermarket shelves and often the only chance you’ll have to sample them is at a specialist event.
Snowshill Manor has been growing heritage apples for many years; collector Charles Wade is known to have had an orchard at the Cotswold manor and it was replanted with more than 50 different apples between 1994 and 2001.
“There aren’t any lists so apples that were interesting, unusual, old and rare were chosen,” explains Vicky Cody, who runs the garden at the National Trust property.
The result is an eclectic mix of eaters and cookers with some from the Gloucestershire area and others from further afield.
Among the local varieties are the wonderfully named ‘Cow Apple’, so called because the seedling was found growing in a cow pat on a Gloucestershire farm. It’s a general purpose apple that is particularly good for mincemeat as it keeps moist when in the jar.
Then there’s ‘Severn Bank’ a sharp-flavoured Gloucester apple that was first recorded in 1884; ‘Gloucester Royal’, a sweet eating variety from 1930; and ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, another local fruit dating from around 1700, with a peardrop flavour.
“If you like a russet, it’s got that sharp flavour. It’s delicious,” says Vicky.
Another with an unusual flavour is ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, which as the name suggests has a hint of pineapple. ‘Egremont Russet’, which was first recorded in 1872, has a rich, nutty flavour, while ‘Devonshire Quarrendon’ has a slight taste of strawberry.
One of the oldest varieties grown at Snowshill is ‘Court Pendu Platt, which is believed to be Roman in origin and first recorded in about 1613. Meanwhile, ‘Flower of Kent’ is said to be the apple that gave Newton the idea of gravity.
A more recent variety is ‘Discovery’, an August fruiting apple and one that I grow. It has superb flavour and intense white flesh but doesn’t keep and needs eating fresh-picked.
And you shouldn’t go by looks alone. ‘Jenny Lind’ doesn’t seem very appealing but has a fabulous flavour.
“I was very surprised when I tried it. She’s a beauty.”
When it comes to growing, Vicky says heritage apples are no more difficult than modern varieties. She recommends planting in October or November or waiting until February or March.
Dig a good-sized hole and put in some well-rotted manure or good compost. Firm the tree in well and add a short stake, set at an angle, allowing the top of the tree to move slightly in the wind, which will encourage better roots.
“As it grows, keep checking the tree tie to make sure it’s not rubbing.”
You’re unlikely to get a crop until the tree is a few years old but then you can enjoy your own taste of history.
• During October, Snowshill Manor displays fruit from its heritage apples in the old cow byre and there is fruit for sale.
There are also weekend demonstrations of crafts, including making bee skeps and candle-making.
For more information, visit the website.
“Rosa ‘Mutabilis’,” says James Alexander-Sinclair decisively when I ask for his favourite plant. He then adds that yesterday it was Salvia confertiflora while last week it was tulips that had stolen his heart. It is, of course, an impossible question for any gardener – my own choice changes like the weather – but it’s something I like to throw into the mix as you can learn a lot by the way people react.
James’ answer, given with barely a pause yet far from predictable, shows why he is in demand as a writer, compere and speaker while the gentle ridicule is typical of someone who doesn’t take himself or his achievements too seriously.
Despite his position as a noted designer, award-winning writer, RHS council member and judge, he describes his career as a “collection of fortuitous trippings” that has seen him fall into first landscaping, then garden design followed by writing and broadcasting; he’s a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers, presented Small Town Gardens and was a judge on the The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge.
It could have been so different if he’d followed up on early success as a waiter or selling trousers, or changed his mind about estate agency as a career.
“It was really what people used to do when they didn’t have any qualifications or any particular idea of where they were going.”
Instead, a plea from his sister to get off the sofa and “dig the garden or do something useful” saw him turning over her tiny London garden and the realisation that it “was fun”.
Teaching himself how to pave, put up fence panels and lay turf, James started his own landscape business. Design came about when he decided “there must be an easier way to earn a living than through heavy lifting”.
As with the landscaping, he is largely a self-taught designer although his father sent him on a course at the Inchbald School of Design when he was starting out: “I didn’t turn up for most of it – which was unfortunate – because I had other things to do.”
His writing started because of ‘old rectory syndrome’: “Somebody would ring me up and say ‘Can you come and look at my garden?’ and I would say ‘Marvellous’ and it would be The Old Rectory and I would go ‘Oh God, not another one.’ I wanted to do something else.”
Broadcasting followed, giving him a career that embraces just a few of what he describes as the tentacles of gardening, a profession that can range from landscaping and photography to scientific research and raising plants.
“It’s nice to be busy in as many of those different spheres as I can possibly manage.”
This opportunity is something he believes should make gardening an attractive career for school-leavers.
“Gardening when I started was considered the last refuge of the unemployable and it isn’t any more.
“It has enormous breadth to it and is something that can provide somebody not only with a satisfying life but also with a satisfying living.”
And he dislikes the idea that because it’s a popular hobby people underestimate the worth of professionals.
When to comes to designing, James works by three guiding principles: what the house looks like; what the views are; who’s going to live in it.
“It’s a matter of making sure you’re making gardens that are not only appropriate for the place but also for the people.
“You’re making a garden for people to use, to love and to enjoy and to make their lives better and happier so it has to work with the way that they live.”
It was this sense of fun that came to the fore in his BBC Radio 2 garden for Zoe Ball at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show where water in weathered steel troughs vibrated to the bass beat of music.
The five gardens celebrating the 50th anniversary of the radio station were a last minute addition by the RHS when show garden numbers fell short, thanks in part to post-Brexit referendum jitters. They proved popular with the public, partly James believes due to their size, and gardening on that scale is something that is likely to be repeated at the show.
Yet, he believes there’s still a place for the “great big theatrical experience” of Chelsea.
“Chelsea always throws up something that’s exciting,” he says. “You go to Chelsea and you will be entertained, gobsmacked and educated. You will leave there inspired by something.”
As for his own Oxfordshire garden, it’s constantly evolving: “It’s a work in progress and always will be because that’s the way gardening is. Nobody in the world has got a finished garden.”
• Allomorphic in Stroud is hosting a lunch and audience with James Alexander-Sinclair on Friday November 10, followed by a talk in Painswick on garden design hosted by Painswick Gardening Club. Tickets are £45 for the lunch and talk, limited to 24 places. Tickets for the talk only are £15. For details and to book, see the Allomorphic website.
In some ways, it’s apt that the road to Pan-Global Plants should be somewhat unnerving. A turning through imposing gates leads quickly into a winding, narrow track through trees. There’s a sense of exploration that’s fitting for the route to a nursery founded on unusual plants from across the world.
Pan-Global Plants was started by Nick Macer in 1997 and moved to its current site in a one-acre 19th century walled garden in Frampton-on-Severn 16 years ago.
“It was literally a pigsty,” he recalls. “It had Gloucester Old Spots here.”
Today, it’s a thriving nursery with rows of tempting plants, polytunnels stuffed with even more and paths, partly obscured by huge clumps of bamboo or tall perennials, leading out into permanent planting.
“I don’t have time to garden so it’s a little like a wilderness area with a few interesting bits in it,” Nick says with a smile.
He describes his ethos as providing the “beautiful, unusual and interesting in equal measures” and admits he gets “stressed” by the fact people can be put off by the term rare.
“I get a number of people who come in saying ‘We couldn’t grow it, we’d need specialist knowledge’. People think rare and unusual means difficult to grow.
“There are literally thousands of rare plants that are hardy and easy to grow, as well as many more that are more of a challenge.”
The nursery covers everything from herbaceous, shrubs and trees to ferns, hardy exotics and bamboo with annuals and alpines among the few things not covered.
His stock is constantly changing with around 200 to 300 new things every year. In the past, he collected some of that in the wild but complex legislation means he now limits himself to what he calls plant exploring.
“There’s still stuff to be discovered, looked at, photographed and documented.”
So, what did I discover? Well, the first thing to catch my eye was a beautiful range of hydrangeas, a mass of soft pinks and dusky reds. In particular, H. macrophylla ‘Merveille Sanguine’, which grows in a pot by the suitably colonial-style office. It has stunning rich flowers in red and purple hues against leaves that were taking on dark tints.
It’s only drawback, Nick tells me, is that the flowers fade to an unattractive brown.
I’ve always loved the quirky fruits of the spindle tree and those on Euonymus phellomanus were stunning – a combination of pink and red rather than the pink and orange more commonly seen.
And how about Desmodium elegans for some late summer colour?
The range of tulbaghia are also worth a closer look with flowers in shades of lavender and purple.
Nick believes gardeners should be more adventurous when it comes to choosing plants and came up with some ideas for interesting varieties to add something different to a border.
Hydrangea aspera ‘Bellevue’ is a new form that he thinks deserves to be grown more widely. It makes a large shrub up to 4m tall with hairy leaves and a lacecap bloom of white flowers around the central rich mauve-blue.
Unusual philadelphus are another suggestion. One is a new cultivar that he has named ‘Casa Azul’, which was found as a seedling at Pan-Global Plants.
“I dug it up and grew it on as I thought it had to be something interesting as the only philadelphus I had were interesting Mexican species.”
The resulting plant has a weeping form, dainty foliage and cup-like white flowers with a soft purple basal blotch that give off a particularly sweet scent.
And for something exotic, why not try Hedychium, or ginger lily? With their colourful blooms and large leaves, they look as though they will need TLC but are actually tough.
“People don’t think they’re hardy whereas some are totally bone hardy, even in the worst winters” explains Nick, adding that four different types in the nursery garden came through the harsh winter of 2010 completely unscathed.
He recommends planting them with contrasting foliage, such as ferns, or using them as statement plants on their own.
“They add a really exotic touch to a garden.”
• Pan-Global Plants is open from February 1 to October 31 and from November 1 to January 31 by appointment. The nursery also runs a mail order service. For more information, visit the website.
• Nick Macer is the guest speaker at Cheltenham Horticultural Society’s 75th anniversary lecture on Friday October 6, 2017. He will talk about plant-hunting in ‘Plants From Around the World’ at Balcarras School, Cheltenham. Tickets cost £6 and are available on the door or in advance: contact Yvonne Gregory on firstname.lastname@example.org
• Read my conversation with Nick about design, Gardeners’ World and why gardeners get a raw deal here.