7 things you need to know about growing tomatoes

Selection of different tomato varieties

Isn’t it funny how even people who don’t like gardening grow tomatoes? What is it about them? Maybe tomato growing is one of those practices passed down from grandparents that just sticks, evoking childhood memories. Growing tomatoes is also one of those rites of passage to becoming a keen gardener. Ask the keenest gardener that you know and there’s a good chance that one of the plants they started out with was the good old tomato.

Let’s face it, growing tomatoes is a long journey and even experienced gardeners can be forgiven for asking ‘are we there yet?’ a few times while waiting for the first fruits to ripen. The sowing of the first seeds in early March feels like a very long time ago when you finally bite into a soft, sun-warmed bright red fruit. But a summer without homegrown tomatoes would be like a summer without Wimbledon and rainy barbecues. It just wouldn’t feel right!

More tomato advice:


From poison to staple crop

Tomatoes are in the same family as deadly nightshade and were long thought to be inedible. Getty images.
Tomatoes are in the same plant family as deadly nightshade. Getty images.

The suitability of tomatoes for eating wasn’t realised for a long time. Tomatoes are in the plant family Solanaceae, also known as the nightshade family, which includes the poisonous plant deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

It was long thought of as a poisonous plant, and John Gerard’s 1597 Herball, said that tomato plants were of ‘ranke and stinking savour’ which probably didn’t help it find many new fans, and tomatoes weren’t widely eaten until the middle of the 18th century. Today, British growers, grow around 100,000 tonnes of tomatoes a year, around one-fifth of the total yearly consumption.

World record for heaviest tomato

Have you ever grown a giant tomato to be proud of? The tomato with the heaviest recorded weight was a real whopper that tipped the scales to the tune of 5.284 kilos. That’s about the same as four laptops or 40 bananas! Grown in the USA by Del and Julie Faust, the monster fruit had a circumference of almost 83cm and was grown from ‘9.06 Brown’ seed.

Beat tomato blight

Blighted tomato plant
Growing tomatoes under cover can help to reduce risk of blight

Tomatoes grown outside are likely to succumb to the disease late blight, which will ruin crops, especially if it strikes early in the month. The disease thrives in damp, warm conditions and spreads by spores blown by the wind so crops growing in the shelter of a greenhouse are less likely to fall victim to it. There is an inevitability about blight with outdoor growing but take these steps to keep it at bay for as long as possible.

  • Check the plants daily this month and cut off any affected leaves and bin them as soon as you see them. This can give ripening fruits a bit of time to develop fully before the disease takes hold
  • Make sure you water the crops right at the base of the plant, to keep the leaves as dry as possible
  • Some tomato varieties do have some resistance to the disease. Large beefsteak tomato ‘Crimson Crush’ has good resistance, and hefty fruits that can weigh as much as 200g each
  • Clear all blighted foliage and fruits from the ground and make sure you don’t grow tomatoes (or potatoes) in the same patch of ground next year

Giving plants the snip

Towards the end of the summer, tidy up plants to help them put energy into ripening remaining fruit
Towards the end of the summer tidy up plants to encourage remaining fruit to ripen

Tomatoes ripen best when left on the vine and towards the end of the month they can need a little help! By late August it’s all about the fruits and getting them to ripen before temperatures fall. The easiest way to do this is by snipping off leaves that are obscuring the fruits so they get maximum sun. This is especially important if you are training the plants on canes outdoors.

It may look strange to have a plant that’s had a drastic haircut but as well as ensuring fruits get sun ripened, this diverts more of the plant’s energy into fruit production. No more worrying about the plants looking pretty, it’s time to get as much fruit from the plant as possible!

Ugly toms win prizes!

“Ugly” tomatoes are judged in this Spanish contest. Alamy images.

If you have a village show or flower show in your community, to enter your best veg crops or Victoria sponges into, here’s a potential new category to mention to the organisers! Tudela, a city in northern Spain is host each year to an ‘Ugliest Tomato’ competition. Farmers in the region grow a variety of Marmande tomato known as the ‘Ugly Tomato of Tudela’ which has twisted fruits, so it seems that there are no shortage of potential winners.

Ketchup to pick you up…

If you have a glut of tomatoes in late summer - turn them into tasty ketchup. Getty images.
If you have a glut of tomatoes in late summer, turn them into tasty ketchup. Getty images.

Tomato ketchup is as much of a kitchen staple as salt and pepper for many, especially if they have children in the house (some of whom would gladly drink it out of the bottle…). But rather than a condiment for chips, did you know that tomato ketchup was once used as medicine.

In 1834, American physician Dr John Cooke Bennett made a tomato ketchup recipe which he said could cure diarrhoea, indigestion, jaundice and rheumatism. His ketchup was made into extract of tomato pills. But the tomato pill industry crashed and burned and was gone by the middle of the century, as fraudsters made bogus pills that kept the name but left out the tomato. By 1876, Henry Heinz stepped in with his own ketchup that made no claims of medicinal benefits and here we are, nearly 150 years later. Sorry kids it’s not one of your five a day!

Are fruits ripening too quickly for you to eat? Turn them into homemade ketchup with this recipe from BBC Good Food.

Make your own tomato food

Making your own potassium-rich comfrey fertiliser is an inexpensive way to feed tomato plants
Making your own potassium-rich comfrey fertiliser is an inexpensive way to feed tomato plants

If you’ve spent a fortune on tomato food this year, make a free, potassium-rich fertiliser from next spring. Chopping up comfrey leaves and steeping them in a bucket makes a wonderful natural plant food that is good for tomatoes, saving money and reducing the amount of plastic that you are depending on.

If you haven’t got any comfrey, ask a friend (maybe one with an allotment). It’s a vigorous self-seeder and difficult to get rid of, so it shouldn’t be in short supply.

Chop up some young leaves in the bottom of a bucket and weigh them down with a stone then cover it (it stinks!). Keep checking the bucket every couple of weeks and pour the liquid they release into a recycled bottle that has a screw top. This can then be diluted down in your watering can when you are ready to feed your plants.

 

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