We all say tomato
One of the most satisfying garden plants to cultivate, tomatoes may require a little toil but they repay your efforts many times over
It’s often said that to garden is to hope. In the case of growing tomatoes, that hope takes root far back in the short, dark days of early spring when gardeners everywhere busy themselves with the annual ritual of seed sowing. From the minute those first baby seedlings push their way through the damp compost, we start anticipating their every need, becoming temporary surrogate parents to delicate newborns that must be kept snug, watered and protected from extremes of temperature.
Almost overnight, the infant turns into a stroppy teenager – an explosion of growth that has the gardener scrambling to keep up with watering, side-shooting and training the plant so that it doesn’t become a jungle of tangled stems. That’s followed by the anticipation of those first star-shaped yellow flowers, then the plant’s first “set” truss (the point when the pollinated flowers become immature tomatoes), and by mid-summer – if all goes well – the sight and taste of the first ripe fruit.
But only if all goes well. Because as delightful and rewarding as they are to grow, tomatoes are demanding plants that punish the mildest neglect. Forget to water them for just a few days and you’ll find the plants in a state of feeble collapse. Water the foliage rather than just the pot and you risk the plant succumbing to blight or botrytis.
Don’t attend to the daily ritual of searching for errant side shoots and you’ll soon regret the triffid-like stems sucking nutrients away from the ripening fruits. Neither can you allow yourself to spoil them, as overwatering and overfeeding cause very different sorts of problems.
Get it right, however, and you’ll be rewarded with the sort of bountiful harvest of tender-skinned, flavour-filled, juicy fruits that make those months of hard work worthwhile.
If your tomato plants aren’t looking totally terrific, some troubleshooting tips follow. And if they are? Consider entering the fruits in the upcoming Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2013. Don’t worry if they aren’t the best-looking tomatoes on the block – there’s even a prize for the ugliest fruit.
Ideal conditions: Heat-loving and intolerant of cool, wet or windy growing conditions, these tender plants are best grown under cover in a glasshouse, polytunnel or sunny porch.
Training: With cordon (single-stemmed) types, it’s very important to regularly nip out any basal or side-shoots as soon as they appear. This can happen almost overnight, so make a habit of examining each plant as part of the regular watering routine. To improve air circulation, also remove the leaves below the first set truss.
Other than the dwarf types, all tomato plants need some form of support. Either train them on strings tied from the roof of the glasshouse/polytunnel and coiled gently around the stem of the plant, or tie stems gently to individual bamboo canes.
Once a sufficient number of trusses have set, you then need to “stop” the plant by cutting off the growing point, a couple of leaves above the uppermost set truss. This encourages the plant to put all its energy into the developing fruit rather than new growth.
As a general rule, allow six to eight trusses if growing in the ground, four or five if growing in containers.
Watering: With too much water, the tomatoes may lack flavour, or the plants succumb to disease. Too little or uneven watering and there is the chance of blossom-end rot – a condition where circular, sunken, black blotches appear on the end of the fruit. Technically caused by a calcium deficiency, it happens when the compost/soil has been allowed to dry out, resulting in inadequate water to the developing fruits.
As a general rule, once the fruit has started to set, allow 1.5l-2l of water per plant per day, more in very hot weather when you’ll need to water twice a day. The aim is to maintain a consistent, sufficient amount of moisture in the growing medium so that it is only slightly damp – but not sodden – to the touch. If you’re growing plants in a container/grow bag rather than in the ground, place it on a shallow tray/dish, which helps prevent the root system from drying out.
Feeding: Once the first truss has set, plants should be fed weekly with a potash-rich liquid fertiliser. Underfeeding soon results in nutritional deficiencies (yellowing of the leaves, reduced fruit production), while overfeeding can lead to flavourless fruits and nutritional imbalances.