Tomatoes – a growing addiction

If I could grow only one crop it would be tomatoes. Little else has the variety or sums up summer in just one mouthful.

It’s something I’ve done for years, even before I had a proper ‘kitchen garden’, cramming growbags around the tiny patio at my first house.

My obsession can be blamed on a friend who raised seedlings on the windowsills of his equally tiny terraced home and gave me some spares. I was hooked.

With more space, there’s been the chance to experiment. This year, I’ve got nine different varieties, some sent by seed companies for me to trial, others old favourites.

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‘Costoluto Fiorentino’

Top of my list is ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, an ugly brute but one of the best flavoured tomatoes I know. Don’t be put off by its looks or the seemingly cotton wool-like flesh. This tomato is oozing with flavour and makes one of the best sandwiches.

‘San Marzano’ is another regular, a plum-type that’s good for cooking, while ‘Principe Borghese’, is more rounded and great for roasting. All of these I’ve bought from Franchi seeds and, as always, they are producing robust plants.

For the first time in many years, I’m not growing my usual cherry tomato, ‘Sweet Million’. Having been sent trial tomatoes and with seed left from last year (yes, I find it does keep), even I decided there was enough for one year.

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Just some of this season’s plants

‘Heinz 1370’ from Dobies’ Rob Smith Range is one that I’m particularly interested to taste. A heritage variety, it’s the tomato that forms the basis of Heinz Tomato Sauce.

Unwins’ ‘Cherry Baby’ is another new one to me and is described as having masses of “deliciously sweet” tomatoes. Perhaps it will replace ‘Sweet Million’ on my list.

‘Montello’ from Marshalls is another with small fruit but this time they are mini plum tomatoes. So far, they’ve produced sturdy plants and I’m hoping they live up to their billing of “prolific cropping”.

‘Indigo Cherry Drops’, from Thompson & Morgan, was sent to me last year and wasn’t an immediate hit. For me, the dark purple-red skin added little and it didn’t have the sweetness I look for in a cherry tomato. But, I had some seed left and decided to give it another try before a final verdict.

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‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ is already fruiting

‘Sweet Aperitif’, also from Thompson & Morgan, is a more traditional red cherry tomato. Best grown in the greenhouse, which is where I’ve put mine, it is described as having an “outstanding sweet and balanced flavour” and should produce up to 150 fruits per plant under glass.

The firm has also sent me plug plants of ‘Red Tiger’, which have just arrived and are now safely tucked up in the greenhouse. Some will stay there while the rest, once they have settled in, will go outside.

As well as trying out different varieties of tomatoes, over the years I’ve also experimented in how to grow them.

They never go into borders as I’ve found that always seems to result in blight. It also ties up space that can be used for things that really don’t like containers.

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I use growing rings in the greenhouse

In the greenhouse, my tomatoes go into growbags. Most have plastic ‘growing rings’ that I got from the RHS Malvern show some years ago. These give a greater depth to what can be a rather shallow growing container, while the outer ring makes watering easier.

Where I haven’t got enough rings, I sink a small flowerpot into the growbag alongside the plants to make watering easier and to ensure it reaches the roots rather than spilling out over the ground.

Outside, the tomatoes are lined up along the garage wall, which faces south-west. In the past, I used growbags here but they were untidy and seemed to attract the garden’s resident slugs and snails. It also limited the number of tomatoes I could get into the space!

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Pots sunk into growbags help watering

Some years ago, I switched to pots and, for me, it works much better. They are a bit of a mix and a few are probably a bit small but the tomatoes don’t seem to mind.

Obviously, if you are growing in containers then watering and feeding regularly is essential. Mine get a daily water – unless we’ve had heavy rain – and a weekly feed.

How the crop will do depends on what sort of summer we get. Last year, there was near disaster with fruit slow to set, probably due, I was told, to a long stretch of cold nights. There was also the worst attack of blight I’ve known for years. Everything succumbed, even in the greenhouse, and, talking to other growers, I know I wasn’t alone.

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These were picked early due to blight and ripened indoors

Yet, picking the crop green and ripening them indoors salvaged most and, although it wasn’t as plentiful as usual, we were still eating home-grown tomatoes right up until Christmas.

It’s too late now to sow seeds but there are still plants available in nurseries and garden centres. If you’ve never grown tomatoes, why not give it a go? But, be warned, they can be addictive.

Win some tomato food

Tomatoes are hungry plants and need regular feeding. I’m running a competition with six prizes of a bottle of Gro-Sure tomato food, supplied by Westland Horticulture.

Easy to use, it includes potash, magnesium and seaweed and can be used for indoor and outdoor tomatoes as well as sweet peppers, courgettes and aubergines.

For more details and to enter, see my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds – click on the links at the top of this site.

This contest has now closed.

How to grow vegetables in containers

Grow your own is a big theme of BBC Gardeners’ World Live and ahead of the show I talked to Matt Biggs about how lack of space needn’t be problem.

It’s easy to assume that to grow vegetables you need space – an allotment or a back garden turned over to spuds and carrots. That’s difficult with gardens getting ever smaller and waiting lists for allotments while those living in flats may have only a balcony. The answer, believes Matt Biggs, is growing vegetables in containers.

“We’re trying to encourage everyone to grow vegetables and this can be done irrespective of the amount of space you’ve got,” he says.

“Just because you have a small back garden you’re not excluded. Come on in and join the fun.”

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Matt will be demonstrating how to plant up herbs and vegetables in containers

Matt, one of the regulars on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, will be exploring how to do it and what to grow in daily talks on the VegTrug Grow Your Own Stage at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

It’s important not to think you can become self-sufficient in veg, he tells me, but to choose things that are family favourites, are difficult to find in the shops, or that simply taste better when they are freshly picked.

“Grow your favourite vegetables rather than the things you think you ought to grow,” he advises.

Fast maturing or what he calls “high value” crops are better than things that are cheap to buy or that will occupy the container for months – main crop potatoes and parsnips are just two examples of crops to avoid.

Keeping a note of what you’ve grown and what worked will enable you to build up your own list of what works well in your garden.

Among his top tips are carrots, beetroot – “pick them when they are the size of golf balls” – and lettuce, particularly ‘cut-and-come-again’. Sweetcorn would be another ideal crop as it begins to lose sweetness as soon as it’s picked.

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Peas and mangetout are ideal for growing in containers

Other suggestions for vegetables in containers include mangetout, peas, runner beans, endive and chard, while Matt says strawberries are ideal for hanging baskets where they are out of reach of slugs.

It also makes sense to choose mini veg varieties or those that have been bred for small spaces, such as broad bean ‘The Sutton’. Look out also for those with disease resistance.

If you can’t get mini veg seed, just pick before the crops reach full maturity and sow again.

“If you harvest when they’re small, you get better quality, they’re more tender and tasty.”

The key to success when it comes to vegetables in containers is not to sow the whole packet at once but to keep repeating every few weeks.

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Chard is a colourful crop for a container

“People do forget to succession sow and to sow a little and often,” says Matt.

When it comes to containers, anything goes as long as it has good drainage and is as big as space will allow. Try recycling old wooden boxes – line them first with polythene to prevent water loss – or hunt out some of the many colourful plastic containers on sale.

“I would avoid metal because it will heat up in the sunshine and will scorch fibrous roots and dry out the compost but apart from that you can just use your imagination and make it fun.”

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Try putting strawberries in a hanging basket

Matt advised filling your containers with compost designed for vegetables, or making your own by mixing organic matter, such as homemade compost, with a John Innes soil-based compost to give it more substance.

Once planted, choose a sunny spot and check plants daily for pests, diseases and water – an irrigation system saves time and water. Then, just keep harvesting and sowing.

“Don’t be frightened to do it,” he says. “The lovely thing about gardening is it’s not failure it’s gaining experience. Always be prepared to have a go, learn from what happens and enjoy it.”

BBC Gardeners’ World Live 2017 is at the NEC Birmingham from June 15-18. There will be talks, growing advice, nursery exhibits and free entry to the neighbouring BBC Good Food Show. For more details, see the website.

Ticket giveaway

I have six pairs of tickets to BBC Gardeners’ World Live to give away, valid for any day except Saturday June 17. See my Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram feeds for more details and to enter. (Click on the links at the top of the site.)

Win some Dalefoot Compost

Like many gardeners, I don’t like using peat and over the years I’ve tried many alternatives. One of my favourites is Dalefoot Composts – not least because it uses renewable ingredients to produce soil improvers and composts.

Dalefoot was set up by Cumbrian hill farmer Simon Bland and his wife Jane Barker, who has a doctorate in environmental science. Drawing inspiration from old gardening books, which described using bracken as fertiliser and sheep’s wool as a method of water retention, they have combined the two to produce composts that can be used as a planting medium or dug into borders to improve the soil.

The bracken, traditionally cut for animal bedding, is harvested as part of the upland management to improve the area’s biodiversity, and the wool comes from the farm’s own flock.

“By harvesting the often ‘waist-high’ bracken we make it much easier and safer to gather our sheep, whilst reducing the cover of this ever-spreading scourge of many uplands,” explains Jane.

“We use wool from our neighbours’ Herdwick and Swaledale sheep to share the benefits of our farm diversification. Plus, using the natural materials on our doorstep makes the perfect recipe for a really sustainable compost.”

Bracken is high in high in potash, while wool has nitrogen, released slowly as it breaks down, and can hold around 35 times its own weight in water.

Dalefoot

It took the couple about 12 years to develop the range, trialling it first with local gardeners before beginning to sell it by mail order and at shows, including Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court. It is also available through some garden centres and shops, such as Allomorphic in Stroud.

“Our peat-free composts give gardeners the option of growing in earth-friendly composts that really work and we’re delighted that professional growers are now using them and winning gold medals at shows like RHS Chelsea,” adds Jane.

The range covers all sorts of gardening and all sorts of gardens. The basic ‘Wool Compost’ is ready to use in potting up or planting out.

‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ is designed to be mixed with soil or spent compost, such as the contents of old growbags. It’s ideal for improving thirsty ground like the sandy soil in my garden.

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I’ve been trying out the Dalefoot seed compost

In contrast, ‘Lakeland Gold’ is designed as a ‘clay-buster’ for those with heavy soil while Wool Compost ‘Ericaceous’, as the name suggests, is ideal for planting acid-lovers, such as rhododendrons. It comes in normal and double strength.

Recent additions to the range include a seed compost, which I have trialled and found easy to use, while my seedlings seem to love it. There is also a compost for vegetables and salads, ideal for containers.

• Dalefoot, which was recently featured on BBC 2’s Back to the Land, will be at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival from May 11-14, 2017.

Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win some Dalefoot Compost.