Tomatoes are one of, if not the most popular, vegetables to grow at home. For good reason too, they taste more delicious when homegrown, properly ripened on the plant and grown in good organic compost or soil. Of course tomatoes are actually a fruit, and like many fruits sunshine and warmth are key ingredients to success.
Starting early is the key, and although the British summer is heading towards a traditional cold, wet and windy bank holiday now is really the time to make the commitment to growing them. Leave it too late and you risk a bushful of green tomatoes that are delicious for chutney but not for salads.
My method for growing tomatoes is to start them on a sunny windowsill sometime between February and March. If you have not done this there are plenty of options still available. Walking passed my local village high street I can purchase tomato plants for as little as £0.75 per plant and make a contribution to charity at the same time. If you know other gardeners it is highly likely they have spare seedlings they can share with you. Garden centres have fields of tomato seedling pots swaying in the breeze (but not enjoying the cold wet weather)! Before buying, it’s worth bearing in mind the following:
Some varieties are more suitable for outdoor growing rather than under glass or plastic. If your climate is particularly cool, or you have had disease problems in the past, than specifically bred F1 varieties may be a good option.
Referring to the size and growing habits of the plant rather than the fruit itself. Indeterminate varieties are more common and require the most support. If you choose to grow in pots, make sure the pots are large and that you are able to support the plants as they grow. In my plastic greenhouse I train my tomato plants to grow up string strung from the metal struts of the plastic greenhouse frame.
- Taste and colour
There is a broad range of colours, sizes and flavours of tomato plants to choose from, including heirloom varieties. Heirloom varieties lack the science behind hybrid varieties and therefore may be more vulnerable to disease. However, there is a romance to growing them and their taste is purported to be superior to modern cultivars.
Click to see the range of Tomato varieties on Amazon UK.
Ways Of Growing Tomatoes
The most reliable way of growing tomatoes is under plastic or glass. If you do not have room or budget for a glass greenhouse, than a plastic tomato greenhouse can be a good alternative: see Tomato greenhouses on Amazon UK. If you have an allotment you may find that your plants grow faster due to the extra light your plants will receive, however this comes at the risk of greater exposure to cold weather and disease spreading from plot to plot. For reliability, I grow tomatoes at home and on the allotment to ensure a harvest. Here’s my review of planting options:
- Grow Bags
I prefer not to use them. The compost is excellent but I find that the plants are difficult to support. If I were to use them, I would cut them in half and stand them on their ends, effectively creating two pots.
I’ve found a big pot to be a successful way of growing tomatoes, and I include a strong cane at time of planting to help support the plants. A good method for inside or outside a plastic greenhouse. Try to find a position for the pots away from cooling winds but in maximum sunshine.
- Hanging baskets
Cherry tomatoes can grow very well in hanging baskets, tumbling their fruit over the side. Ensure they are well watered. Also, ensure you purchase a tumbling variety rather than one growing upwards!
- Upside down tomato planters
Like hanging baskets and with the same advantage of avoiding the need to support the plants. Also makes watering easier as the roots are wrapped in fabric making them less likely to dry out.
- Direct in the soil
I mix 50% compost with 50% normal earth at time of planting. For support I drive a stake about 180cm long into the ground for each plant, hammering about 50cm into the soil. This creates a really rigid frame to support the plants. Water copiously at planting and never allow the plants to dry out. In a good summer, this can deliver the earliest and biggest crop of tomatoes – unfortunately it can also be the most unreliable.
Caring For Tomatoes
The following is a short guide on how to care for your plants:
Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes (the most common type) need to be pruned. Basically the more leaves that grow, and the more branches (or trusses) on the plant, the more energy is spread or diluted around the plant. That’s not a problem in a hot long summer. In a normal English summer it’s worth prioritising to ensure a harvest. I cut the growing tips off at the end of July, and limit the plants to 6 – 8 branches. Cut off side shoots as shown above throughout the summer, and watch out for shoots from the base of the plant that also should be removed.
This is a simple one – never allow the soil to dry out. If growing in pots, ensure they have good draining too. The plants should not be standing in waterlogged soil. You know if tomato plants are thirsty because the leaves start to shrivel up. Within an hour or two of watering they will show their happiness again!
Tomatoes do like a rich soil. The more energy provided the bigger and quicker they grow. I prefer organic feeds like a really rich compost at planting, and then periodically apply comfy tea or similar. Tomato plant food is also excellent for feeding other plants and flowers, see Tomato plant food on Amazon UK.
You may like to see our allotment shop for tomatoes.