Her Outdoors: Tomato catch-up

Jane Merrick

Whether you’re intending to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse or outdoors (like me), it is a good idea to start planning the sowing of this wonderful crop that can, if you get it right, keep you going until Christmas.

There are some gardening wimps out there who say you can’t grow tomatoes outdoors in Britain, firstly because it’s not warm enough and secondly because of blight. As someone who has grown tomatoes successfully outdoors for nearly 10 years, I would recommend the wimps look away now.

The only time in that decade I’ve had trouble was last year when, with my first season in my new allotment, I decided to drop my traditional pots on hot steps routine and plant them out on the plot. This was, it turned out, a big mistake – half of them were nicked by the allotment thief (a man with a beard and a blue bag who is unfortunately going to feature in this blog from time to time)  and the other half were felled by blight. Blight – which makes leaves, fruit and moods go black –  strikes more frequently on allotments than in front gardens because of the proximity to other plants that could be harbouring this nightmare disease. It affects tomatoes and potatoes (which come from the same family, Solanaceae) and is more common in wet summers. We had a beautiful sunny dry summer last year, yet still it struck. So this year, I am returning to what I know best, and keeping them on the steps.

In London, the temperature has never been a problem. Stone steps conserve a lot of the day’s heat, the low walls keep the plants sheltered, and, in our case, the steps are facing south. I can understand living in northern counties this might be a step too far, although against a south-facing, sheltered wall in Yorkshire, say, outdoors is still possible. Ultimately, I risk all of the cold, theft and blight because tomatoes (like most juicy crops) taste so much better, so much sweeter, grown in open sunshine than under cover.

The recommended sowing time for greenhouse plants is January to February and for outdoor ones is March to April, but – and if the wimps are still reading I am sorry – I ignore this and sow in the last week of January – gasp! – for planting in pots outside in – gasp! – mid-April.

One year, hours after I got my little plants in their new homes on the steps, a sudden hailstorm blew in and I frantically tried to cover all of them with fleece. But, and this is why I insist on sowing in January, by April I had got them toughened up through bursts of hardening off outside and, despite the hail, they went on to provide dozens of tomatoes over a longer period than if I’d got them going outside in May.

Anyway, back to the sowing. For all tender plants, you need some form of heat – I use an electric heated propagator with an adjustable thermostat and place it on a surface in a south-facing window. Tomatoes need at least 18C to germinate, chilli peppers need to be around 21C. Here is my propagator all cleaned and ready for the new season:

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Blank canvas: empty cell trays in a heated propagator ready for this season's sowing

There is a lid to keep the humidity high and create perfect conditions for germination:

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My propagator - with thermostat for heat control

This year, I sowed my tomato seeds in the cell tray above, using special seed compost, drenching the soil, placing two seeds per cell and covering lightly with more compost. Another good method – and recommended for tomatoes because they hate root disturbance – is to use these coir pellets which arrive as flat discs and expand into mini pots when soaked in water – I’ve sown chillis, peppers and aubergines in these this year. A fascinating early science lesson for young children!

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Placing coir pellets in water to let them expand

There are so many different varieties of tomato – more than 7,000 – that I cannot help ordering new ones each autumn and trying out as many as possible. This year, I’ve sown two each of 18 varieties. I know 36 tomato plants sounds a lot, but once I’ve given some away to family, friends and our allotment plant sale, and accounting for some that don’t germinate, I will end up with around 24. But you cannot grow enough, because they have such a long season and at the end of the season, when the sun can no longer ripen them, you still have the prospect of green tomato chutney. I also want to keep trying out different types until I find my favourites. For children, tomato growing is a perfect activity because of the range of varieties and the striking nature of the crop.

It is important to establish whether your variety is a bush (determinate) or a cordon (indeterminate) type because this will govern your pruning and training. Bush varieties should not have their side shoots removed because this will reduce the crop; but cordon types thrive on this type of pruning – it is also recommended to pinch out the growing tip of the main stem after the plant has set four trusses (the stalks bearing flowers that will turn into tomatoes). Most of the varieties on offer from seed companies are cordon types.

My varieties this year, bought from a range of seed companies including Kings Seeds, Mr Fothergill, Thompson and Morgan and Suttons Seeds, are: ‘Beefsteak’, ‘Beefmaster’ and ‘Marmande’ – all beefsteak (and cordon) types; traditional salad-sized varieties ‘Alicante’, ‘St Pierre’, ‘Shirley’ and ‘Moneymaker’ (all cordons); cherry tomatoes ‘Sweet Million’ (cordon), ‘Red Alert’ (bush), ‘Red Cherry’ (cordon) and ‘Gardeners Delight’ (cordon); a dark pink cherry called ‘Rosella’ (cordon); a couple of yellow types ‘Golden Sunrise’ (cordon) and ‘Apricot Dream’ (cordon); a black Russian beefsteak variety called ‘Black Krim’ (cordon); and two plum types ‘Milla’ and ‘San Marzano’ (both cordons).

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18 varieties of tomato sown and placed in propagator at 21C

Once the seeds have germinated, take the lid off the propagator to reduce humidity and limit the risk of damping off, which can kill young seedlings if conditions are too damp.  When the seedlings have grown a pair of “true leaves” – rather than just the first seed leaves that come through – prick them out into little pots like this and remove from the propagator. They should remain indoors on a warm windowsill but don’t need to be as hot as the propagator. Here are my seedlings after three weeks:

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Tomato seedlings are potted on and have grown true leaves

Here is a close-up of ‘Golden Sunrise’:

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Close-up of Tomato 'Golden Sunrise' showing its distinctive leaf shape

and here is what they will (hopefully) look like come the summer! I’ll post an update when it’s time to plant them outside.

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Tomato 'Golden Sunrise' Pic: Kings Seeds

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