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How to grow tomatoes: complete guide

‘British Tomato Fortnight’ is an annual event that aims to celebrate and highlight the wonderful British tomato!  This fortnight encourages consumers to buy local tomatoes and to 'grow your own' tomatoes.

There is nothing quite as magnificent as growing your own vegetables, but tomatoes really are the pièce de résistance when it comes to the satisfaction of tending and eating the fruits of your labours! 

Prepare your tomato seeds

If you have decided to grow your tomatoes from seed, you should have already sown your seeds in April, as this allows for planting them out as 5–6-week-old plants in late May or early June.  But with some new varieties such as ‘Veranda Red’, later sowings are also possible, offering a good crop in October!

Choose between determinate varieties of tomato

It is important to choose between determinate (bush type) varieties of tomato which require no side-shooting, and indeterminate (cordon) types which usually need side-shooting and must always be grown with a support system. In recent years more vigorous determinate types have been introduced and these may be described as semi-determinate to distinguish them as varieties that may need some additional support in the garden. Compact determinate types are easier to maintain and usually have concentrated ripening over a few weeks. Indeterminate types require more maintenance but produce ripe fruit over a longer period.

Why not consider less common varieties of tomato?

Nowadays tomatoes come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours.  For all you disco divas out there ‘Shimmer’ is a real beauty with green stripes, touches of shimmering gold, unique almond shape and sweet, succulent flavour.  And for something more risqué, how about ‘Burlesque’ a real superstar which is gorgeous, juicy and prolific!

Pick tomatoes that are disease-resistant

And many have the added benefit of blight resistance.  The dreaded blight is among the most devastating diseases affecting outdoor tomatoes in the UK. The plant pathogen responsible is the fungus-like Phytophthora infestans, which belongs to the taxonomic group commonly described as water-moulds or Oomycetes.  But breeding in modern tomatoes to overcome blight has come on in leaps and bounds and there really are some amazing and tasty options that banish this pesky disease!

The brand new ‘Crush’ family of tomatoes all have superb blight resistance.  ‘Cocktail Crush’ has been noted as blight-resistant ‘Ailsa Craig’ types salad tomato.  Whilst ‘Crimson Crush’ was developed in Yorkshire and tested at Bangor University for proven high levels of blight resistance alongside delicious flavour. The highly blight resistant ‘Rose Crush’ has a lovely pink colour and outstandingly balanced flavour of umami, sweetness, and acidity.

Tomatoes are consistently in the top of the crops favourite veggies for us to grow and buy in the UK and with all the marvellous new varieties out there, we can’t see this changing any time soon!

Please be aware that not all tomato types are suitable for growing outside, some types like cherry specifically are better grown in the greenhouse.

Planting Tomatoes

Planting in the soil can be done using a 5-week-old plant any time after the danger of frost has passed. For an indeterminate variety crop support systems are the key to planting directly in soil beds. The use of a stake or sturdy cane with associated side-shooting and tying-in at 10-15cm intervals and the removal of the growing point, after the plant reaches the height of the support, is usually successful. Recently the American-style tomato cage has become available in the UK and this has the advantage of eliminating the need for regular side-shooting of indeterminate plants, producing a large tomato ‘bush’. The cage must be sturdy and can be substituted by a 30cm diameter cylinder of wire stock fencing supported by a stake.

Prepare your soil to grow tomatoes in your garden

Determinate or bush varieties can be planted directly in the soil and allowed to spread over the soil surface. The use of a straw, paper or plastic mulch will help keep fruit clean and reduce diseases. It is also possible to enhance the air-flow around the base of a determinate plant by supporting it on a piece of stock wire raised on stakes and poles approximately 15-20cm from the soil surface.

Some experiments have been undertaken to grow bush tomatoes using a strawberry trough system. This makes harvesting more straightforward and keeps fruit completely clean.

Planting tomatoes in containers or hanging baskets

Growing in pots is something everyone can do. Apart from the very compact varieties like Bitonto, which can be grown in a 3-litre pot, most varieties need at least a 10 to 15-litre pot (25-35cm diameter) to ensure watering and nutrition levels are maintained.

Hanging baskets are very popular for growing determinate bush varieties but it is essential that there is enough soil volume in the basket to support a plant. In most cases a (40cm) or (45cm) diameter basket is necessary for a single plant of varieties like Romello or Lizzano, although a (35cm) basket is adequate for Tumbling Tom Red or Cherry Falls. Watering and feeding in both pots and baskets is critical but if carried out on a regular basis can yield excellent results.

Harvesting tomatoes

If you want to eat your tomatoes straight away, just pull them off the vine gently and nibble away!  But if you want to eat them later, it is best to harvest them at the ‘breaker stage’ this is when they are half green and half red (or whatever colour they should be when ripe).  At this point it can be picked and then ripened by you.  You can place them on a sunny windowsill to continue ripening or place them in a paper bag with a ripening banana to speed up the process.

If you are planning on eating your tomatoes in a few days then you can store them in a cool dry place, but if you wish to keep them for a little longer use the fridge.

Grow your own tomatoes …for beauty, aroma and taste …nothing quite beats it!

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