Plant Profiles: Tomatoes

Photo of sungold and indigo rose tomatoes ripening on my windowsill
Some of last year's 'Sungold' and 'Indigo Rose' ripening on my windowsill. 

Every year I have a tussle with myself about growing tomatoes. Home-grown have the best flavour by far, but as I only have space to grow them outdoors, it's a much riskier venture. Too often the summer weather is indifferent, or blight wrecks them at the point of ripening. As a result it can be the most heartbreaking of crops.

But then comes along a summer like last year and I fall in love with growing tomatoes all over again.

Tomatoes are one of the mainstays of our salads and to get anything remotely like a good flavour in the shop-bought line means buying them on the vine. This makes them an expensive buy, so home-grown makes good sense both in terms of taste and wallet. In a good year.

My internal wrangling means I always miss the prime time for sowing seeds. I could just about get away with sowing them now, but it would mean a later crop and an increased risk of blight annihilation. Besides, my windowsills have reached groaning point already without the added burden of tomato plants. 

Photo of 2008's total harvest - one solitary cherry tomato
2008's total harvest

My local garden centre always comes to my rescue in April by having a too-tempting range of tomato plants on special offer. The variety available in any UK store is restricted compared to what's available from seed, but I'm more than happy with my 'Sungold' and 'Gardener's Delight'.

As I've mentioned blight a few times, you may be surprised I'm not growing any resistant varieties. I thought those I've tried so far were lacking flavour, but I'm looking forward to trialling some of the new supposedly blight conquering 'Crimson Crush' when they arrive courtesy of Sutton's.

I'm having great fun reading James Wong's latest book, Grow for Flavour* at the moment. His science-based approach in this volume really appeals to me, so I'm looking forward to trying some of his tips. I'll be giving my plants a molasses feed, spraying with dilute aspirin and restricting the number of tomatoes per truss. I'll also be using salt water a couple of times - a tip I also learned from Alice Doyle after her talk at Bath University Gardening Club last year.

* = NB this book's styling makes it more suited to print than e-reader. Full review to follow...


Cultivation notes

There are several choices to make before choosing your specific varieties to grow:
  • Indoor or outdoor? There's a wider range of varieties available for indoor growing and higher temperatures means there's usually a much earlier crop. Blight problems often arrive later in the season too. However, not everyone has a greenhouse or other suitable indoor space, so outdoor growing may be the only option. Outdoor plants should be hardened off and planted out after the risk of overnight frost has gone - late May in my case
  • Variety? Small cherry tomatoes for salads and snacking; huge beefsteak for stuffing; or in between the two for sauces and an all-round-ish option. I prefer the cherry types as they are sweet and delicious in our salads. In good years I have enough to make our favourite pasta sauce from these too
  • Indeterminate (aka vine or cordon) or determinate (aka bush) or in between? This is the way the plants grow and determines how you look after them. Bush plants generally need less care and attention, but they are shorter plants so may not have such a large harvest. See the RHS's general page on tomatoes for full details on how to deal with each type
  • Growbags, pots, or ground? When I grew tomatoes on the allotment, I found I never had to feed them. Container-grown plants need regular feeding as well as bought-in compost. This can make home-grown cost more than shop bought, though of course they should still be far superior flavour-wise  

Photo of green tomatoes outdoors
Tomatoes hail from South America, so they prefer warmer, drier summers. A sunny spot is needed to ensure the ripening of fruit. I've found leaving green fruit to ripen on my kitchen windowsill extends my home-grown season long after I've cleared away the plants in the autumn. 

Cherry tomato harvest of various varietiesEven temperatures and water supply are preferable, otherwise fruit can develop problems such as blossom end rot or splitting. Last year I grew my plants in some self-watering pots and my thin-skinned 'Sungold' still split. I also saw 'catfacing' for the first time, so fluctuating temperatures must have been the cause.

When the weather's dry, gently tapping the flowers helps the fruit to set, as does a light misting with water. Always water around the roots of the plant to prevent the spread of fungal spores. I 'plant' a flower pot next to each plant and I water into this instead.

My main pesky pest on tomatoes is aphids, which I simply wipe away and let the birds, ladybirds and hoverflies have a feast. There's a ton of problems associated with tomatoes - too many to mention here. See the links below for helpful information.


Further References

You may also like

  • Grafted tomatoes et al. - one of my most popular posts ever and there's also my follow-up post on my trip up north to find out how grafted plants are produced
  • Salad Days: Tomato 'Indigo Rose' - my report on my trial of last year's new variety. It makes a better salsa than a salad and later harvests had marginally more flavour. Alice Doyle mentioned in her talk there are loads more varieties in the IndigoTM family pipeline, which should have a better flavour
  • On Blightwatch - news of a blight monitoring service that's worth subscribing to if you grow tomatoes or potatoes
  • Naomi's post on the tomatoes she'll be growing this year. We chatted about our favourites with Sally at The Edible Gardening Show last month
Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre. It's also where I bought my tomato plants last week.

Note to readers:
Sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words are my own :)
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  1. I think I will grow Sungold again this year, I haven't started anything yet. I plan to start the broad beans this weekend, the veg patch was dug over weeks ago!

    1. Yes Amanda it's a busy time on the plot!

  2. Sungold always do well for me, everything else seems to be a bit of a lottery. I grow Ferline every year, and always try some new ones as well - this year Maskotka and Totem. I've had lots of failures, but some successes as well. Last year Golden Sunrise did well. All of mine are grown outside.

    1. Ferline is one of the blight resistant varieties, but it didn't do thst much for me taste wise

  3. I'm reading James Wong's book too at the moment - most interesting stuff. I noted his comments on 'Gardener's Delight' with some dismay! I'm trying to cut down on seed sowing this year but don't think that I can resist when it comes to tomatoes so a few seeds will be soon forthwith.

    1. Very interesting Anna. James has put details of lots of the research papers he used as source material up on his website. They're well worth looking at too

  4. Good luck with your tomatoes this year. I have grown them the last two years and some I keep in the conservatory and some outside. The first year was more successfull, but this year will be even better - here is hoping:)

    1. I like the sound of your conservatory :-)

  5. I'm trying 7 new varieties this year plus my trusted Brandywine. A while ago I watched a programme with Raymond Blanc about tomatoes, the look on his face when he tried grow-bag grown ones was hilarious. As he said, they get a lot less nutrients, minerals all the stuff that is in soil, so can never have the same taste. I honestly don't see the point of grow-bags if one has soil, many people seem to use them in their hot house, why not use the soil that is there?

    1. I grew 5 varieties last year and that was too many for my space. I'd love to be able to grow 8 like you. That was possible when I grew them on the allotment, but blight has made that impossible these days.

  6. Every year I think I won't bother again because of the inevitability of blight. And every year I give in. It will be bought plants for me again - and what I grow will depend totally on what's available. Makes for an interesting life!

  7. Surely it's not too late to sow seeds now for planting out early June. Despite blight usually affecting our site I generally end up with a worthwhile crop.
    I'm growing my usual Gardener's Delight and Golden Queen, along with the bush variety Red Alert for the first time. Flighty xx

    1. Ah, but you're in London Flighty where there tends to less blight and higher temperatures than I get here in the south-west. If we swapped places, I'd risk sowing some... If I could find some windowsill room!

  8. I grow them here in Scotland where the weather is not ideal. But I always get something. Most of them have to go outside though I keep a few in pots in a plastic growhouse. Even if they don't ripen outdoors, they do eventually when I bring them inside. My favourite at the moment is San Marzano which is an Italian plum tomato. Last year they were amazing.

    1. You've reminded me of a fascinating talk I went to given by Paolo from Franchi seeds - San Marzano was one the varieties he mentioned. Great for sauces if I remember correctly.


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