Tomatoes: tried and tasted

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’.

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The sunny garage wall is ideal for tomatoes

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.

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‘Sweet Aperitif’

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.

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‘Cherry Baby’ proved a winner

‘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.

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‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ starts off purple

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.

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We preferred ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ cooked

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.

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‘Montello’

‘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.

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‘San Marzano’ is a classic Italian variety

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.

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‘Heinz 1370’ produced enormous fruit – seen here with ‘Sweet Aperitif’

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.

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‘Red Tiger’

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.

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‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ is still the family favourite

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.

The trials of gardening

As a gardening journalist, I’ve long been given plants, seeds and bits of kit to test in my own plot. Some are established favourites with growers, others things firms are keen to promote, occasionally it’s a variety so new it has yet to be named and it comes with just a reference number. Gardening trials are a great way to discover new things and push the boundaries of what you grow.

This season has seen me raising everything from cosmos to cabbage and testing a peat-free compost. There have been a few disappointments and one or two surprises.

Star plant

Possibly the stand-out plant of the year was Petunia ‘Night Sky’ from Thompson & Morgan (pictured above) mainly because I really didn’t expect to like it. I have a love-hate relationship with petunias. On the one hand, they are a useful summer bedder for containers but they need a lot of dead-heading to look good – something I find a horribly sticky job.

‘Night Sky’ seemed even less likely to appeal as I expected the white-splashed dark purple blooms to be a bit garish.

In fact, I rather grew to like them. The purple had a velvety sheen to it and the white splashes gave them a cheerful rather than comical look.

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Cosmos ‘Xanthos’ proved a winner

I put them in a pot with Cosmos ‘Xanthos’, also supplied by Thompson & Morgan. Launched in 2015, it has pale yellow flowers that fade at the edges and a darker, golden centre. The plants are dwarf, making them ideal for containers.

If there was a problem with them, it’s deadheading, as the flowers are packed onto the stems, making it difficult to snip off spent blooms without accidentally removing flower buds.

There were a few plants over after I filled my container so I put them in some spare ground I had in one of the borders. Expectations were low as it’s one of the shady spots but the cosmos performed well, flowering happily in the semi-shade.

Surprising success

Cabbage was another surprise in this year’s gardening trials. It’s not something I usually bother to grow. Brassicas are fraught with difficulty thanks to cabbage whites and the garden’s resident wood pigeons – there’s only so much ground you can net – and I prefer to use precious space for something that’s a bit more unusual and difficult to buy, such as cavolo nero.

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I really liked this cabbage

However, with a packet of ‘Gunma’ seed from Marshalls, I decided I might as well give cabbage a go. I limited the trial to half-a-dozen plants and began to wish I’d grown more. The cabbages are tightly packed, crunchy and with a good flavour. Definitely one to repeat.

Blight blues

Tomatoes are a family favourite and one of my main crops; I generally grow about six different varieties, ranging from cherry type to large Italian varieties for cooking.

This year, I was asked by Suttons to grow ‘Crimson Crush’ as part of my gardening trials. Billed as 100 per cent blight resistant, it is a cordon variety producing large fruit.

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‘Crimson Crush’ tomatoes were the first to fruit

Did Suttons know something? For the first time in years my garden, along with those all around, succumbed to a bad attack of blight. And yes, the ‘Crimson Crush’ fell victim along with the other varieties. That said, it was among the last to get it.

What was noticeable was that in a poor growing season – the tomatoes set badly and very late – ‘Crimson Crush’ was the first to fruit, producing weeks before some of the others, both in the greenhouse and outdoors. It wasn’t my favourite to eat raw, but that’s just personal taste as I prefer smaller, sweeter varieties. However, it’s size does mean that it’s not too fiddly to cook with.

Compost testing

The blight rather curtailed another of my gardening trials: peat-free compost from Dalefoot. I had been growing a few tomato plants in my ordinary peat-free mix and a few in Dalefoot’s new ‘Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads’.

The Dalefoot range, from Cumbria, combines sheep’s wood and bracken, both renewable resources, and claims to cut the need to water by up to half, while providing a steady release of nutrients.

What I did find, before the tomato plants bit the dust, was that those grown in the Dalefoot product were significantly bigger than their counterparts, with exactly the same watering and feeding regime.

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Dalefoot composts are made from wool and bracken

I tried the ‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ on a couple of my veg beds to see if it would improve the free-draining, sandy soil. It’s a difficult thing to judge, but certainly the squash fared better there, the sweetcorn grew strongly and the soil had a better texture.

Finally, the ‘Wool Compost for Seeds’ was easy to use and produced good germination. I particularly liked its lump-free texture, quite different from other peat-free composts I’ve encountered. Had I been more organised, I would have tested it against the same seed sown in a different medium but sometimes life’s just too busy.

If there’s a drawback, it’s the price. At £10.99 plus delivery for a 30L bag of the standard ‘Wool Compost’, if you order 2-11 bags, it’s not a cheap option. Prices do drop, the more you order – perhaps with a group of friends or through a gardening club – but it could be too expensive for those on a tight budget. It is also stocked in some garden centres, which would take the delivery charge out of the equation and it could be mixed with home-produced compost to eke it out.

A disappointing dish

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The ‘Egg & Chips’ spud harvest

Possibly the most disappointing thing in the gardening trials was unsurprisingly, Thompson & Morgan’s ‘Egg & Chips’ plant, an aubergine grafted onto a potato. Despite being mollycoddled in the greenhouse, it produced just one aubergine and a handful of spuds. Not bad until you consider the £14.99 price tag for the 9cm grafted plant. Definitely in the gimmicky but not a serious contender category.

Planning for spring

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A white pumpkin is on next season’s list

So much for 2016. I’m already looking ahead to the next growing season and new gardening trials. A spotty nasturtium, courgette and pea suitable for containers, two-tone tomato and white pumpkin are already lined up for the gardening trials.

I’ve also just planted up pots using a new planting collection – ‘Winter Wonder Gro Thru’ – put together by Unwins containing a mixture of tulips, crocus and grape hyacinths.

The bulbs are packaged in three ‘bulb pads’ designed to make the planting quicker and easier. All you do is put a layer of compost in a pot, put in the first pad, add more compost and so on, finishing with the viola plugs that come with the kit. The pads are numbered and even tell you which way up to place them in the container.

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Bulb pads make the planting easy

I’m not sure if this will appeal to experienced gardeners as it limits your choice and ‘bulb pads’ seem unnecessary for what isn’t a particularly difficult job. However, at £19.95 for enough to fill two pots, it’s reasonably priced. There is also a ‘Spring Fireworks’ version, which has narcissi, Dutch iris, chionodoxa and pansies.

It’s all in the soil

Finally, I will be trying out a new compost accelerator and a soil improver that have been launched recently by SoilFixer.

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SoilFixer’s compost humification agent

The Northumberland-based company claims that compost made with its activator will double crop growth and yield, while the ‘SF60 Super Soil Improver’ is said to greatly improve water retention while adding important nutrients. My lightweight soil sounds the ideal testing ground.

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