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.

tomatoes
‘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.

tomatoes
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.

tomatoes
‘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.

tomatoes
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!

tomatoes
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.

tomatoes
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.

Taking stock: a garden review

January may be the time for resolutions and planning but there’s a lot to be said for pausing between the gardening years to take stock and learn from the past year.

The highs

garden review
Strawberries were the season’s highlight

Thinking back over the year, the strawberries sprung the biggest surprise. Now in their second season, they started fruiting as expected in early June and didn’t seem to know when to stop. I was still picking fruit in late October and the plants had unripe fruit and even flowers in December. A helping of fertiliser in spring will be important after all that effort and I will start to gather runners to replace the plants at the end of this summer.

garden review
The strawberries were still trying to fruit in late autumn

They weren’t the only fruit to do well: the raspberries – summer, autumn and a mystery yellow variety – all produced bumper crops. Our ancient apple tree decided 2016 would be a productive year (it takes some years off) and we managed to get the gooseberries netted before the garden’s resident pigeons spotted them.

garden review
We got to the gooseberries first

Remembering to pinch out the tops of the broad beans helped with blackfly; the rhubarb moved with astonishing speed from pink mounds in the soil to enormous leaves atop thick red stems but was still harvested before turning fibrous; most of the beans – French and runner – were picked before getting too big, with those that escaped ‘podded’ to use as haricot.

garden review
Most of the beans were harvested at the right time!

It was also a good year for flowers – often those planned by nature rather than me. The foxgloves put on a spectacular show, having seeded themselves in a corner.

garden review
The foxgloves chose their own spot

More plants have been appearing throughout the year – often in the veg beds – and these have been transplanted while the spent flowers from this year were left until the seed was dry and this was then sprinkled in the same corner. Hopefully this will ensure a good display this year and next.

garden review
I wish I could take credit for the marigolds

Even better if only for the weeks of colour they provided, were the marigolds. The descendants of plants grown from seed nearly 15 years ago, they pop up all over the vegetable garden in a mass of yellow, orange and every shade in between. This year, they have flowered prolifically and were finally silenced in late November by our first hard frost.

The crab apple put on its usual ‘strawberries and cream’ show, there was a white cloud of cherry blossom for all too short a spell and the summer was followed by spectacular autumn colour.

garden review
The autumn colour was stunning

Most pleasing was the passion flower, grown from a cutting by my dad, starting to cover its trellis and screen the leaf mould bays; fingers crossed it comes through the winter intact.

garden review
I’m hoping the passion flower comes through the winter intact

The lows

No gardener gets it all right and there have been more than a few plans that have gone astray in my plot.

Perhaps the most surprising disappointment was the courgettes. Normally we have so many I resort to ‘hiding’ them in soup, pasta sauces and even chocolate cake. This year, I put the plants out as usual and waited, and waited. The plants simply failed to grow and by the end of the summer many were little bigger than when they were put out.

garden review
Courgettes weren’t plentiful last year

Talking to other gardeners, it seems the cold nights that seemed to last all summer were to blame and the courgettes were simply sulking.

Cool temperatures also took their toll on the rest of the squash family with the slow start making the season too short to achieve much. I did harvest some butternut and ‘Crown Prince’ but not as many as in previous seasons.

garden review
The squash haul was disappointing

There was a near disaster with the tomatoes. Again, the plants were slow to grow and even slower to set fruit and then blight took hold. Complete failure was averted only by picking all the fruit and ripening it indoors.

garden review
Picking the tomatoes early was the only option

While the flavour is not as good as sun-ripened and yields were down, it did mean we were eating home-grown tomatoes right into December.

garden review
Once indoors the tomatoes slowly ripened

In the flower borders, a late frost badly damaged what had been a bud-laden wisteria. I resigned myself to a year without its lovely mauve blooms only for a few to appear some weeks later. It was nowhere near as good as it might have been but I was grateful for some colour.

garden review
Frost badly hit the wisteria

It’s also been a year of inexplicable death – or near-death. First to succumb was Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, which almost overnight stopped growing. Then a large tree-like cotoneaster shrivelled, a Lonicera fragrantissima started to die back and large areas of dead wood appeared in Choisya ternata.

The viburnum has been removed – not without difficulty as it was underplanted with bulbs and hellebores – as has the cotoneaster, while the other two have been cut back to new growth that was shooting from the base. Meanwhile, I am anxiously watching a Viburnum opulus, which seems to be ailing.

The hopes

Looking ahead, 2017 is going to be a year of overhaul. Some parts of the garden, now into their 20th year, are badly in need of rethinking.

Already, the removal of the viburnum and some solidago that had colonised the border has created a huge planting opportunity. The loss of the cotoneaster has removed an important screen and turned what was a shady area into one with more light. Some research will be required before the gap is filled.

garden guide
I’m hoping for a good harvest this season

As for the veg, new paving to replace the chipped bark paths that the badger and mole jointly destroyed should make life easier; at one point I was spending more time weeding the paths than the beds.

I’m also determined to plant more Cavolo Nero and chard next year – we had nowhere near enough of these family favourites – and I will persevere with the courgettes and tomatoes. After all, optimism is a gardener’s best friend.

• What have been the highs and lows of your gardening year?