The secret to growing tremendously tasty tomatoes

It takes time and expertise to coax these greedy, sun-loving, thirsty plants to give of their very best

The spectacular display of produce at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin. Photograph: Jonathan Hession

The spectacular display of produce at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin. Photograph: Jonathan Hession

 

How totally terrific are your tomatoes this year?

The reason I ask is that the utterly splendiferous annual event that is the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival takes place from next week (Saturday, August 17th-Sunday, September 1st) in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin and its organisers are inviting members of the public to bring along (in the glorious words of Roald Dahl) your finest, most scrumpdiddlyumptious, lickswishy, beauteous, homegrown “toms” to include in the event’s massed display.

With the emphasis firmly on celebrating and preserving the great diversity of flavoursome, productive, garden-worthy varieties, the TTT Festival has become one of the highlights of the Irish kitchen gardening year.

The brainchild of the north county Dublin-based organic gardener, blogger and all-round tomatophile Nicky Kyle, in recent years it’s been championed by the well-known garden writer and author Jane Powers and supported by some of the country’s most seasoned gardeners and growers.

Indeed, so successful has it become that last year’s festival at the Bots set a new world record (unofficial) for the amount (256) of different varieties on exhibit in one place.

After it closed, some of the Bots’ team of professional gardeners then laboriously saved seed of every one of the named non-F1 exhibits (the latter come true from home-saved seed while those of F1/hybrids don’t), which they subsequently used early this spring to propagate several hundred young tomato seedlings.

Many of these were generously shared with appreciative, green-fingered members of the public as a way of helping to preserve genetic diversity as well as spreading the word that tomatoes aren’t just red and round but come in a wide variety of colours, shapes and sizes while their flavour and texture can range from sweet and juicy to rich and meaty.

Just as importantly, the Bots held onto one young specimen plant of every one of the named varieties, which its gardeners have been lovingly growing on in a large, sunny glasshouse in the gardens for the last couple of months.

If you’ve ever grown your own, then you’ll appreciate that successfully cultivating 200-plus tomato plants is no mean feat. It requires time and expertise to coax these greedy, sun-loving, thirsty, demanding plants to give of their very best, especially given the unusually cool temperatures experienced during this year’s challenging spring/ early summer.

A native of South America, the tomato typically loves heat (but not excessive sustained heat which can stress plants, scorch foliage and cause problems with pollination), plenty of bright sunlight (ideally at least 7-8 hours a day), very regular liquid feeding (some gardeners do this daily) and water (only around the base of the plant, and enough to keep plants growing well and avoid problems such as blossom-end rot, yet not so much that it splits the skin or diminishes the flavour of the fruit).

Humidity levels

If it’s what’s known as an indeterminate or cordon variety (as opposed to the more compact bush/determinate kinds), it will also require thorough staking/support and regular side-shooting.

All of this aside, you also have to ensure your tomato plants don’t fall victim to various common pests and diseases including blight, aphids and red spider mite.

For this reason, careful ventilation is crucial as is what’s known as “damping down”, where the floor/paths of a greenhouse/polytunnel (but not the plants themselves) must be sprayed with water to raise humidity levels. 

In short, it’s akin to a skilful and time-consuming horticultural ballet, one where even experienced gardeners can sometimes accidentally put a foot wrong (a gardening friend once memorably complained that it was as demanding as looking after a newborn baby).

National Botanic Gardens gardeners Michael Higgins and Aisling O’Donoghue tending to tomato plants. Photograph: Richard Johnston
National Botanic Gardens gardeners Michael Higgins and Aisling O’Donoghue tending to tomato plants. Photograph: Richard Johnston

So a big hurrah for Bots gardeners Aisling O’ Donoghue and Michael Higgins, both relatively new to the challenging yet fascinating world of tomato-growing, who have succeeded in growing a fine crop for display at this year’s festival.

True to the spirit of the event and to what Aisling aptly describes as “the weird and wonderful” world of tomatoes , the varieties being grown by the Bots gardeners display the great diversity of colours, shapes and sizes that this species of plants (Solanum lycopersicum) is known for, from the tiny, egg-yolk yellow fruits of ‘Gold Rush Currant’ to the large, fleshy, violet-flushed fruits of ‘Amethyst Jewel’.

It includes classics such as the unruly yet hugely delicious Italian beefsteak variety ‘Pantano Romanesco’, a particular favourite of both Nicky Kyle and the IT columnist Michael Viney; ‘Gardener’s Delight’, an enduring favourite grown for its flavoursome, large cherry-sized fruit; the UK-bred ‘Sungella’, prized by many gardeners for its flavour and productivity’; and ‘Rosada’, a very popular plum-type variety of tomato from the Far East celebrated for its tastiness. No longer available as seed, the latter had to be propagated from a cutting overwintered in one of the garden’s glasshouses.

All of these varieties and many more will be on display in the National Botanic Gardens Teak House on Saturday August 17th (from 2pm) –Sunday September 1st.

If you’d like to submit some of your own tomatoes for inclusion in the event (the organisers would particularly welcome rare or unusual varieties) then please bring them along to the gardens on Friday, August 16th, from 9am–4.30pm or Saturday morning (up until 10am), ideally labelled to aid their easy identification and display. Better again, email the Bots gardeners in advance to let them know which varieties you plan on entering (botanicgardens@opw.ie).

Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin. Photograph: Jonathan Hession
Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin. Photograph: Jonathan Hession

Even if you don’t have any of your own toms to bring along, do try to pay a visit to what promises to be a wonderful tomato-themed celebration of one of our tastiest and most-loved summer fruits.

(For details of the various talks/activities taking place as part of the festival, please check out Facebook.com/notes/totally-terrific-tomato-festival and botanicgarden.ie)

This week in the garden
Continue to water, side-shoot and liquid-feed tomatoes (this is best done in the morning) and to remove any obviously damaged/diseased foliage. Once cordon-type plants have set between 6-8 trusses, it’s important to “stop” the plants by nipping out the growing tip to encourage it to put all its energy into ripening the fruit. Removing the lowest leaves (those below the first truss of fruit) is also important to help air circulation and reduce the risk of disease.

Trim lavender plants once the flowers have faded to keep them bushy and compact. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Trim lavender plants once the flowers have faded to keep them bushy and compact. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Trim lavender plants once the flowers have faded to keep them bushy and compact. Use a a clean, sharp garden shears to do this, lightly cutting back the plant by about 3cm and avoiding cutting into old wood. For the same reason very old, overgrown specimens are best replaced as lavender doesn’t respond well to hard pruning.

Get your hands on this
Deadheading or picking hard-to-reach flowers on plants growing deep within borders, polytunnels or high up on walls is always a challenge. So I was delighted when TJ Maher and Simon Kirby of Patthana Gardens in Wicklow introduced me to their latest discovery, Spear & Jackson’s “82000RS/09 Razorsharp Easy Reach Pruner”. Ultra-lightweight with carbon-steel blades, a rotating body/cutting head and a cut-and-hold mechanism (so that fresh prunings/flowers don’t just fall messily to the ground after being cut but can be collected), this is also suitable for harvesting hard-to-reach fruit and is a brilliant tool for gardeners. Available to order online from amazon.co.uk (£30.74 plus delivery).

Do this
Organised by Billy Alexander, nurseryman and owner of the award-winning, sub-tropical Kells Bay Gardens in Ferns, Co Kerry, this year’s Southern Symposium takes place on Saturday September 7th with an impressive line-up of expert speakers that includes planthunter Tom Hart of the UK’s World Garden Plants, plantsman & designer Jimi Blake of Hunting Brook, horticulturist and planthunter Thomas Hart-Dyke of Lullingstone Castle and Adam Whitbourn, head gardener of Blarney Castle.

Many gardeners like to make a weekend of this popular event by also attending the Symposium supper, which takes place in Kells Bay Garden’s conservatory on Friday evening (September 6th, €30). Tickets for both are selling out very quickly, so pre-booking is essential. Call/email Billy Kelly at 087 7776666 or billy@kellsgardens.ie, tickets for main event €75.

Gardener Aisling O’Donoghue with a selection of tomatoes grown in the National Botanic Gardens. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Gardener Aisling O’Donoghue with a selection of tomatoes grown in the National Botanic Gardens. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Dates for your Diary
Today, Saturday August 10th (11am-4pm), Plant Fair at the Irish National Stud and Gardens, Kildare in association with Irish Specialist Nursery Association with guest speaker/demonstrator and bonsai specialist Ian Young of NI Bonsai Society, see irishnationalstud.ie; Until August 12th, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, ‘For the Love of Trees’, an exhibition of paintings of trees growing in Kilmacurragh gardens by the artist and designer Bill Fallover, see botanicgardens.ie . From August 17th–September 1st, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin 9, Totally Terrific Tomato Festival.

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