Those lucky enough to have a greenhouse will have the greatest choice in tomato varieties, however you don’t need a glasshouse, or even a garden to grow your own tomatoes. All you need is a sunny spot like a window sill.
Here are ten important considerations when growing your own tomatoes.
1 CHOOSING YOUR PLANTS
Tomatoes should have been sown earlier in the spring, but it’s not too late, as tomato plants are widely available in garden centres. Look out for ones with the first truss, or bunch of flowers, beginning to bloom into little yellow flowers. There are many varieties, but they mostly fall into two categories; indeterminate and determinate. It is important you choose the appropriate one for the growing space you have. Some varieties are bred specially for growing in containers; these stay small and are more manageable if space is limited.
If you are growing your tomato plants indoors, choose plants with an indeterminate growth habit. These are slow growing and at the right temperature (16-24°C) they will keep growing and fruiting indefinitely. In Scotland they are limited by the short summer and growth will need to be restricted in order to ensure quality fruit.
Determinate (or “bushy”) varieties mature more quickly so are better able to produce a good crop outside. Determinate plants grow multiple stems which stop growing at a predetermined length. These are ideal for the hands-off gardener, as they don’t need much pruning.
Think about what variety you want to eat. Generally speaking cherry tomatoes ripen quicker, and will yield you an earlier crop. If you like greener tomatoes, grow large ones, and pick them early. Beef tomatoes are perhaps the most difficult to grow in Scotland as they need lots of heat, and regular watering.
Tomatoes can be planted in soil, compost, grow bags, or anything with good drainage that will support their root system. Be sure to plant with plenty of space. Two plants per grow bag are generally recommended. When planting in the garden leave 45cm between plants. If you’re using a pot ensure that it can hold between three to five gallons of potting soil. Water thoroughly after transplanting.
This should be done daily. Keep a watering schedule; evening is the best time, as many problems encountered by home tomato growers result from irregular watering. Good drainage is important as tomato roots do not like to sit in saturated soil. If you have forgotten to water your plants for a few days resist the urge to flood the plant. This may result in split fruit.
Once the plants begin to flower they will need fertiliser. This improves the flavour and nutritional quality of the fruit while keeping the plant healthy and productive. Without adequate nutrients, the plant will be weaker and more susceptible to pests and diseases. There are many choices for home fertilisers and the rate of application will vary depending on the fertiliser you use and the growing media. If your plants are in soil rich with compost, neglecting to fertilise weekly will not hinder production. Feed less during cold spells.
Both determinate and indeterminate varieties will need support. Determinate plants that bush out will do well with a simple tomato cage. Indeterminate plants should be grown along a cane using twine to secure the plant every 10cm.
Determinate varieties should have side shoots removed from below the first truss of fruit. Removing any more side shoots will only reduce your total yield. Indeterminate varieties should be encouraged to keep only one to three main stems. Remove all other side shoots. Simply pinch out the growing tips from the leaf joints.
Near the end of the summer, the main growing head should be removed to let the plant focus its energy on ripening its existing fruit. Depending on the year, you may have four to six fruit trusses. If the lower leaves of the plant start turning yellow, remove them.
When growing tomatoes indoors, remember that you must perform the task of the pollinator. Tap the stems or cane supports to pollinate blossoms.
Watch out for signs of disease or nutrient deficiency throughout the summer. Plants and fruit can often be saved if the problem is caught in time. Look out in particular for botrytis – a fungus that affects the stem. If you see the mould appearing, cut it off with a clean knife.
9 WHAT TO DO WITH THE TOMATOES
Once you have picked your fruit remember to leave it at room temperature. Tomatoes are tender plants, and putting them in the fridge will quickly destroy the lovely flavours you have spent all summer cultivating. If at the end of the season you have green tomatoes that need to be ripened off the vine, keep them in a paper bag with a banana. The ethylene produced by the banana should have those tomatoes ripening in no time.
We have a lot of time to think as we train our 21,000 tomato plants, and all this time for reflection can take you to some interesting places. Today I am considering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which places physiological needs, like the need for food, as the most basic human need.
Growing tomatoes surely is a way to ensure that most basic of needs is met, but as I suggested earlier, growing tomatoes can be about so much more than the concept of food. We consider the environment and our place within it, using responsible practices. The ultimate level of Maslow’s Hierarchy is self-actualisation, where you find the meaning in your life and your place in the world. Somehow growing tomatoes for local people has given me something that feels an awful lot like that.
Reawakening that most basic drive to feed yourself may not inspire such ethical or self-righteous musings to occur in everyone, but the flavour of a home-grown tomato will change you in ways you do not expect.
• Angelique Iles is a Canadian grower working at Clyde Valley Tomatoes (www.clyde-valley.co.uk) in Braidwood, Carluke. Clyde Valley Tomatoes are now available in Waitrose, Dobbies and independent food stores, as well as at farmers’ markets in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Haddington.