Friday, 24 October 2008

This Blog Is Closed for the Winter

If you would like to join the newsletter mailing list, you will be notified when we start again for the 2009 season.

Look forward to seeing you next season!

Nick Chenhall

Sunday, 21 September 2008

How To Ripen Tomatoes

As the season draws to a close one of the most frequent questions asked is how do I help speed the ripening of my green tomatoes?

The easiest way is to put them into a bowl with a ripe banana. The banana gives off ethylene which is a gas that helps speed the ripening process.

Tomatoes taste best picked ripe but many professional growers pick them as they are just turning colour in order that by the time they get to the supermarket shelves they will be just ripe and therefore last longer ... they won't taste as good though!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Tomato Blight

My wife and I have recently returned home from a great holiday in Northumberland. Although it rained everyday, we did have a good time visiting the North East and the Edinburgh fringe.
It also rained everywhere else in the UK and when we got home many of our outdoor plants were affected with tomato blight.

As you can see, this fungal disease affects both plant and fruit and will also spread to other tomato plants that are close-by.

The best thing to do in this situation is to bag-up these plants and their fruit and leave them to be collected by the regular waste collection service.

If you have been growing tomato plants outdoors in the UK this season and they are not affected by the wet weather that we've had, you're doing very well!

Now that weather predictions are such that we could be getting wet summers every year, outdoor plants will need some kind of protection from the rain.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Pepolino F1

Each season I grow as many different varieties as space will allow and this year I'm growing a new variety called Pepolino F1.

The plant is a bush variety that grows well in a container and its tomatoes are elongated and similar to a plumb shape.

The taste is excellent and is a very good balance of both sugar and acid which gives it a traditional tomato flavour. However, the fruit are very small - about half the size of an average cherry tomato and although the plants produce lots of these little toms, I don't think I shall grow them next season.

There are many varieties to try, so a tomato has to be pretty special to grow it every year.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Growing Tomatoes & Wet Weather

It seems that we've had rain everyday in August here in the UK. Fortunately the temperatures haven't dipped too, otherwise there would be a danger of tomato blight.

One effect that rain has on tomato plants and their fruit is that it dilutes the taste. You'll get a more intense taste from a tomato whose plant has been slightly under-watered.

Tomato split is also the result of either over-watering or too much rain. This happens when the inside of the tomato swells faster than the outside skin is able to cope with and the skin splits.
I cut my split tomatoes along the line of the split and nobody knows the difference!

If growing tomatoes in a greenhouse, wet weather may affect your plants by condensation and humidity. Too much of either can cause fungal diseases (tomato blight again) and cause skin blemishes like ghost spot. This happens when grey mould spores fall onto the skins and leave small white rings.
Thanks to Pete E. for the photo.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Stopping The Tall Varieties

The stage at which you remove the growing tip of a tall variety depends on whether you are growing outside or in a greenhouse. You might allow four trusses outdoors and up to seven or eight in an unheated greenhouse.

The photo on the right shows what happens if you don't pinch out the growing tips! Thanks to Ted S. for the photo.

The other factor to consider is the length of your growing season which for the purposes of the above example would be from late May to the beginning of October of a frost-free period. The longer your growing season, the more trusses you can grow before you pinch out the growing tips, assuming that you have a tall enough greenhouse!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Growing Tomatoes - Watering and Disease

When watering, avoid splashing soil up onto the lowest leaves which may transfer soil infections into a plant through the leaves. Splashing water up onto growing fruit may also create ghost spot which is caused by grey mould soil spores and displays small transparent water-like rings.

It's also a good idea to pull off suckers, side shoots and leaf branches by hand rather than cut them because the blades of knives and scissors can spread disease from one plant to another.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Cherry Tomatoes - The First to Mature

Every season the race is on to see which variety matures first.

However, looking through the seed catalogues in the winter months provides the encouragement to select the earliest maturing variety just to see how soon I can be eating ripe tomatoes later in the season.

The first thing to note is that (in my experience) it is always the cherry tomatoes that mature first.

The next point is that it is not necessarily the variety with the shortest season that matures first, but the variety that sets its fruit at the coolest temperatures.

A plant can be waiting at the flowering stage with no sign of fruit set because the day and night temperatures are not conducive to fruit set.

Furthermore, some varieties will set fruit at cooler temperatures and it is only experience that can give you the knowledge of which is the earliest variety to set.

When you have a quick growing cherry variety that is cold tolerant and sets fruit at cooler temperatures, you have the earliest possible combination.

Of course the seed catalogues almost always say, this or that variety is early or cold tolerant but there is often a lack of information about early fruit set.

I've brought this subject up because this season many gardeners have reported that their plants have been slow to set fruit.

Fruit set or flower fertilisation occurs when day and night temperatures stabilise so that pollen reproduction can occur (usually June for most varieties). Sowing very early in the season could be a waste of time if you choose varieties that require higher temperatures to set their fruit.

Anyway ... after all that I managed to be eating Glacier cherry toms at the end of June from plants growing outdoors ... I'm happy with that!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Blossom End Rot

This is definitely my best season for reducing blossom end rot.

The watering plan has been to thoroughly soak the compost every few days and water normally in between. Of course we haven't had many hot spells where it becomes difficult to keep the compost moist, but nevertheless, I have had only a few cases of BER and I'm growing over seventy plants.

Two further points to make are, it took longer than usual for flowers to set therefore the plants are producing toms in warmer conditions (helps reduce BER caused by low temperatures) and also, the new compost and sterilisation of containers etc. this season means that there are no soil based diseases that hinder the uptake of nutrients and especially calcium.

Blossom end rot was a real problem for me last season but hopefully, I think I've got the better of it!

The three most important ways to avoid BER are:
  1. Water thoroughly every few days.
  2. Always use new compost to avoid disease.
  3. Sow medium and large varieties (the most affected by BER) a little later in the season for fruiting at warmer temperatures.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Removing Leaves

Lower leaves of a tall variety, those below the first truss, may be removed when a plant reaches about 4 ft tall.

If you use a knife or scissors there is a chance that disease may be spread from one plant to another so it is best to pull them off with a sharp tug upwards.

Some of the lower leaves will be yellow and poorly looking and of no use to the plant's growth.

If too many leaves are removed at the same time, it can stress the plant so remove gradually over a period of a few days if there are a lot to remove.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Leaf Curl or Leaf Roll

The curling or the rolling of tomato leaves is quite normal for some varieties and is just a sign that they're happy. However, sometimes it is a symptom of a more serious situation that affects a plant in a way that causes damage.

There are three causes of leaf roll:

  • Physiological leaf roll which may be caused by stresses such as too much water, excess nitrogen, and transplant shock. Often the plants recover and the leaf roll has no affect on the plant's productivity.

  • Herbicide damage may also be a direct result of leaf roll symptoms. Fruit may be deformed but plants can recover if they are not exposed to too much. It is often a drift of spray from a neighbours garden or nearby farmer spraying his field that can cause the problem.

  • The last possibility is a viral infection such as yellow leaf curl virus caused by sap sucking insects such as aphids. Once a plant has the virus its growth also becomes stunted and there is no cure.

There is little that can be done to avoid the second and third reasons (above) for leaf roll. Also, stress is difficult to avoid if you grow outdoors but stress is managable whereas herbicide damage and viruses aren't.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Tomato Support

One of the problems with bush tomato plants is that when they are laden with fruit, the weight of the toms sometimes pulls a branch away from the main stem.

If this happens, all of the toms on that branch will of course stop growing, so it's a good idea to identify any branch that looks vulnerable and support it in some way.

You can see in the pic above that the tomato plants have their laden branches supported with string. A stake is also very useful but do be careful with short stakes and make their ends visible.

Here I've stuck a piece of heavy duty tape to the ends of the canes to make them easier to see ... a cane in the eye is an awful thought!

On a lighter note, you could attach wine corks to the ends of the canes ... but you'll have to drink the wine first!

Another option is empty plastic vitamin containers placed upside-down on the ends of the canes.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Basic Curry Sauce

The Basic Sauce

Caution: The making of this sauce requires that a little water is added to hot oil.
This should be attempted with care because the mixture can splash back so it is recommended that this sauce is cooked only by adults.

The following amounts are for two people.

· Cumin - three heaped teaspoons (big heaps!)
· Coriander - same as above
· Turmeric - one level teaspoon
· Chilli Powder - half teaspoon
· Salt & Pepper - quarter teaspoon each
· A good half cup of sunflower oil

You will also need a tin of chopped or whole tomatoes and a couple of tablespoons of natural yoghurt (optional).

This is the basic mix for most of my curries which you can adjust to your own taste.

Cooking Method and Basic Sauce

Before you start have an open tin of chopped or whole tomatoes ready and a cup of hot water.
Heat a saucepan on the stove (on high) then add the oil.
Add the spices then start stirring and keep stirring (don't let the oil burn).
Add about a tablespoon of hot water and be careful not to let the oil splash back - you should get a big hiss!

Do this several times over a period of a minute or two then start to add the tomato juice then a tomato or two from the tin over the next couple of minutes and use about half of the tin. You will only use about half the cup of water but remember to keep stirring or the oil may burn.

You should notice that the spices change from an oil/sand mixture to an oil/mud consistency.
Turn the heat down to simmer and let the mixture cook for five to ten minutes.
You should see that by now you have a lovely brown/red muddy mixture.
Add the yoghurt just before serving for a creamier consistency.

To make "Special Banana Curry" mash half a banana with a fork and add it to the sauce.
Cook for another ten minutes then add the other half of the banana sliced.
To give the curry a more complex deeper taste, add a tablespoon of dried fenugreek leaves that have been soaked in water for ten minutes - it is powerful stuff!
You could also add pieces of chicken or prawns.
Two tablespoons of tinned/chopped spinach instead of banana.
Double the chilli powder and add tomato puree to the sauce for a madras.

The important bit is adding the water to the oil and spices without getting burned! However, this part of the cooking process is essential to making a good curry sauce.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Is This Really July?

This is what you may expect earlier in the season but the constant rain that we've been having in the UK means that if you have just a few plants, it may be a good idea to cover-up!

Finding ways to protect your tomatoes from rain is probably the biggest challenge for those who grow tomatoes outdoors.

Wet leaves, for a prolonged period, means there is a high chance of blight ... a fungal disease that also affects potatoes. Some varieties are less susceptible, such as Ferline and Legend, but even these are not totally blight resistant.

Another problem with rain is that it drains the soil of nutrients. This could be quite useful later in the season when there may be a build up of nutrients and a flush-through of water would be helpful.

However, as the fruit continues to swell a constant supply of nutrients are needed so even if the plants are well watered, they still need feeding!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Petals & Sepals

One of the interesting characteristics of tomato plants is that their flowers are not only different in size but also in the number of petals and sepals each variety has.

The sepals are the green slender leaves growing above or behind the petals.

I've just been out in the garden counting the sepals and I've found that seven is about average but there are ten on a Brandywine (as in pic) and the lowest I've counted, so far, is six on a Tumbling Tom. It would be interesting to find out which variety has the fewest and the most sepals!

This makes me wonder why, when there are so many different colours of tomatoes, are all tomato flowers yellow? If I find the reason I'll let you know!

Monday, 7 July 2008

Diluting The Taste

If tomato plants receive too much water when the fruits are swelling, the taste of the tomatoes is affected or perhaps more accurately ... diluted!

Exactly why this is ... I don't know, but I guess if soil consists of water and nutrients (among other things) the uptake of nutrient levels is reduced when there is too much moisture in the soil because of dilution.

The reason why this has crossed my mind is because of the amount of rain we've had in the UK lately. As long as the temperature doesn't dip too much, tomato plants should be OK. However, cooler temperatures plus wet leaves equals tomato blight ... one of the biggest problems for outdoor growers. Potatoes are also affected by the same disease.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Droopy Leaves 2 - The Wilts

There are two more reasons (see previous post) why leaves droop when the sun comes out and that is because of fusarium and verticillium wilt. Both of these are fungal infections which are found in soil and infect the roots and clog-up the vascular system of a tomato plant preventing it from carrying moisture to its leaves etc. a bit like a human with very slow blood circulation (excuse the comparison!).

There isn't much that can be done apart from foliar spraying to help the plant in hot weather but an infection of either of these wilts will slow down the production capabilities of tomato plants depending on the severity of the infection.

Once again, use fresh, sterilised compost from grow bags etc. to avoid this problem. It usually occurs when plants use the same soil several seasons in succession.

You may have noticed that there is now Twitter on the blog. Twitter is a sort of mini blog where I can jot down a word or two about what is happening in my garden with regards to my tomato plants at various times of the day. I'll give it a try and see what happens!

Saturday, 5 July 2008


This is one of my favourite pics of the bush variety called Tumbler F1.

I used to grow it every season and it was always among the earliest varieties to mature ... along with Red Alert.

For some reason, possibly the cost of seed, it seems to be losing popularity and more difficult to find in the garden centers and seed catalogues this past couple of seasons.
I now grow Tumbling Tom, Garden Pearl and Red Alert ... Red Alert being the most like Tumbler but much cheaper in seed cost.

There are many new cherry varieties being developed, especially among the tall cordon types, but I expect at some point in the future Tumbler will make a come-back - I hope it does!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Droopy Leaves - Nematodes

The sun is out, the sky is blue, there's not a cloud to spoil the view but you've got droopy leaves!

So you give your affected plants a good watering, move them into the shade if they're in a large pot and give their leaves a misting with the sprayer. Hopefully, their leaves will lose their droop and look normal again.

However, there are times when this becomes a recurring situation and more than just under-watering is the cause.

Nematodes are microscopic worms that live in the soil and affect the roots of tomato plants to the point where proper absorption is reduced and plants are unable to take up enough moisture and nutrients when the weather is hot.

This results in drooping leaves and requires foliar application of both water and feed. Unfortunately, plants affected by nematodes will not perform to their full potential.

Using fresh, sterilised soil such as that from grow bags etc. is the best way to avoid any soil based problems.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

A Drop of Rain

When temperatures are reasonably warm a drop of rain can be very useful.

Firstly, it saves you having to water your outdoor tomato plants, and secondly, it wets the compost or soil gradually, allowing a more thorough wetting of the root area and helping to prevent blossom end rot.

However, a deluge when there are ripe tomatoes on the plants can cause tomato split. This happens when the soil goes from dry to very wet and the tomato skins cannot expand to the degree of water consumption that the tomatoes absorb.

When this happens I just cut the tomato that's split along the line of the split and nobody knows the difference. I usually cut my cherry toms in half for curries and pasta dishes anyway.

One problem that occurs when it rains heavily is that it brings out the slugs and snails. When the rain stops is a good moment to catch them and throw them into the bushes at the bottom of the garden. At night my wife and I can sometimes hear a crunching sound ... we think it's the hedgehogs having a midnight feast ... every cloud has a silver lining!

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Tomato Taste - Sweet or Traditional

This picture was taken two seasons ago (my toms aren't quite as mature as these at the moment) and it shows a truss of Sungold which are probably the most famous of the sweet cherry types.

When you bite into a Sungold you realise that the taste is much sweeter than a Gardener's Delight for example. That's because Sungold is not only sweet but has very little acid content.

Gardener's Delight on the other hand, does contain both sweet and sour, or perhaps I should say sugar and acid and is considered by many gardeners to represent the true, traditional, tomato taste.

Of course I'm not complaining about Sungold ... they taste great!

Monday, 30 June 2008

Loose-Leaf Lettuce & Companion Eating

You've probably heard of companion planting, well this is about companion eating!

Loose-leaf lettuce is easy to grow and is always available to make a quick salad with your tomatoes.

Rocket and spring onions are also easy to grow and will look and taste great too!

A lump of cheese with your own home-grown salad and the best tomatoes that money can't buy is almost heaven ... perhaps a glass of wine too!

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Micro Tom Update

I took a picture of Micro Tom earlier in the season and I couldn't help taking another now the plant is more advanced.

Micro Tom is fun to grow but unfortunately I think that its fruits are just a little too small for practical use but they do taste very good!

I have found with bush cherry varieties that if you grow them in a larger pot than recommended you often get slightly larger fruit. I used to do this with Tumbler, one of the first cherry varieties to be recommended for hanging baskets.

It is difficult to find Tumbler seed these past few seasons so now I grow Red Alert instead.
Two other great cherry varieties to grow in large pots or containers are Tumbling Tom and Garden Pearl.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Checking for Blossom End Rot

One of the things I regularly inspect for is blossom end rot on my medium/large varieties.

It's a good idea to remove any affected fruit so the plant can put its energy into producing fruit that is edible.

Blossom end rot isn't infectious so it won't spread but you may find more than one tomato with this problem on a plant.

It's caused by a lack of calcium uptake owing to cold conditions or dry root areas when the fruits are forming. Keeping the whole of the root area moist is the way to avoid BER but most gardeners who grow using traditional soil methods will get BER affected toms from time to time.

Friday, 27 June 2008


Catfacing is when the bottom part of a tomato becomes malformed.

This can happen for a number of reasons and affects medium/large varieties in particular.

Here you can see scaring and a the crinkly bottom of this New Yorker tomato.

It doesn't affect the edibility ... you can still eat the tomato but you may wish to cut away the ugly bit!

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Blossom Drop

Blossom drop can occur for many reasons and not just because the flowers fails to pollinate.

Sometimes, if a plant has many flowers but limited resources it may abort some of is flowers in order to concentrate on making a fewer, more manageable amount of tomatoes.

This can happen if there is not enough room for root development or if the plant is starved of nutrients.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Saving Tomato Seeds

Saving tomato seeds is easy but you can only save heirloom or open pollinated types which are all varieties except hybrid F1's. If you save and sow F1's your plants won't grow like their parent(s).

Remove the seeds and juice into a glass or small container and cover with cling film etc and add a little water... just enough to cover the seeds.

Keep for about a week during which time a mould will develop called a "mother". This mould will sterilise the seeds.

Rinse the seeds then put them into a glass of water ... the good seeds will sink and the bad seeds will float. Dry the good seeds on kitchen towel for a day or so, until they are completely dry then store in an airtight container such as a container for vitamin pills etc.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

What Does Your Tomato Food Contain?

The usual ingredients are N-P-K which is nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium and the amount of potassium is higher because it is needed for flowering and fruiting.

Magnesium, seaweed extract and wetting agents may also be found in tomato food.
Magnesium is needed by the fruit and enhances the flavour, seaweed extract is an organic stimulant and contributes to the general health of plants and a wetting agent helps the distribution of moisture throughout the entire root area. The wetting agent is useful because it helps prevent blossom end rot ... a problem caused by a lack of calcium.

Not all tomato food contains trace elements because most of these elements are needed in small amounts and can already be found in the compost/soil.

My own personal view on this is that if your tomato food does not contain trace elements, it is a good idea to give them a feed with a food that does during the period when they need the energy most which is when they begin to fruit.

Food containing trace elements could be given once a fortnight during the summer period but remember that "little and often" is always the best way to feed tomato plants.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Pinching Out & Tying Up

I seem to be spending most of my time in the garden with a ball of string in one hand and the scissors in the other. Tying the tall varieties to their support canes as they get taller and pinching out side shoots on over seventy plants is a regular duty which I look forward to.

It's amazing how side shoots sometimes hide themselves ... it's hard to believe that the long side shoot I've just removed was on the plant last time I looked!

With the promise of some good weather this week, I intend to make sure that I stop the tall varieties if they've reached the amount of trusses I have planned for them and trim some of the very small flower clusters off the large fruit bush varieties.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Watering Tomatoes In Containers

Watering can be a tricky business when it comes to tomatoes grown in containers. However, if done properly, correct watering can help avoid Blossom End Rot and create a healthy root structure to power the plant more effectively.

The first aim should be to keep the entire root area moist.
The reason is that roots are only able to feed from areas of soil that are moist.
If half the compost that your plant is growing in is dry, food uptake may also be reduced by half.

If you’ve ever tried to water a pot plant that has very dry soil, you will find that the water runs straight through and out the bottom of the pot, leaving the soil almost as dry as before the water went in!

This can happen to areas of soil in containers without the gardener realising what is happening beneath the soil surface.

If you water from above, give the soil a thorough watering once a week (depending on the weather), then allow to dry until just moist. Keep the soil like this by watering moderately until the next thorough watering.

The smaller your container, the more regularly you will need to water.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Trusses & Clusters

Trusses grow on cordon (tall) varieties and clusters grow on bush varieties.
Clusters, or flower clusters grow at the end of the leaf branches on bush varieties whereas trusses grow directly from the main stem of cordon types.

The great thing about bush varieties is that you can just leave them to "get on with it" without the need for pruning side shoots and hopefully they'll produce lots of fruit from their flower clusters.

Where cherry varieties are concerned, the amount of flowers and fruit aren't a problem.
However, a large number of flowers on a bush variety that produces large fruit may need a little pruning or removal of some flower buds in order to reduce the task of growing a large amount of large tomatoes.

It would be reasonable to expect up to a hundred cherry tomatoes from a well grown bush plant but perhaps only ten or twenty from a plant the produces large fruit.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Herbs & Tomatoes - Two Of The Best

The combination of basil and tomatoes is considered by many to be the height of complimentary tastes. Used extensively in Italian cooking it is included in sauces, pizzas and tomato salads.

This is a good time to sow basil (May - June) to add to all those tomato based dishes that are so popular over the summer months and basil is easy to grow when the weather is warm.

The other herb that goes well with tomatoes is coriander. Often used as a garnish for spicy dishes, especially curries, its seeds are also crushed and made into sauces along with other spices such as cumin.

The garnish of cherry tomatoes and coriander leaves on curry dishes is a culinary luxury that to me rivals the the great taste of basil and tomatoes. Coriander is also easy to grow as is cilantro, a variety of coriander.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

How Useful Is A Greenhouse?

Many gardeners begin their vegetable growing experience by sowing and growing outdoors.

It doesn't take too long before the realization dawns that sowing indoors and getting seedlings off to a good start before planting outside is a good idea. Of course this may not be suitable for all vegetables, but it is a good thing to do for tomatoes and other subtropical plants like sweet peppers that need a bit of extra TLC to germinate and get established successfully.

One of the greatest benefits is that a greenhouse extends the growing season making it possible to start plants early and protect them when the weather turns cold, towards the end of the season.

Further protection from the rain, wind and cold temperatures, especially at night, makes the greenhouse indispensable but there are few negative points such as it may be more difficult to control aphids and high summer temperatures. However, good aeration and shading from direct sunlight can help relieve both problems.

Answering The "Why?" Questions

One of the reasons why I started a tomato growing web site was to answer the "Why" questions.

When I first started growing tomatoes, every book I could find on the subject would say do this or do that without explaining the reasons why. After some years of experience and making a lot of mistakes, I can now answer some of the why questions which gives me more freedom to experiment.

After the rain we had last night, it got me thinking about the difficulties of growing tomato plants in compost that is too wet.

The first thing is that soaking wet compost contains very little air, and air is essential for good root growth. Secondly, plants use the moisture in their compost to absorb nutrients ... the more wet the compost is, the more diluted the nutrients are. That means the plants may not be getting enough food and also explains why if you over-water tomato plants, the tomatoes have less taste.

Another of those "why" questions is: why should I not feed plants until their first pea-like fruit appear. The reason is by feeding before plants begin to fruit, you extend the flowering period which delays fruiting.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Tomato Split

Today's post is a bit last minute because it's 11.00pm and I've only just got connected to the internet after a connection fault with my ISP.

Anyway, it's raining heavily outside so this could be a good time to talk about one of the things that happens when plants that are growing outdoors get a soaking.

The answer is, if they have ripe fruit on them, the ripe tomatoes will probably split or in other words ... burst out of their skins!

Some varieties are prone to their skins splitting if over-watered or they get a heavy shower of rain, Sungold being an example. It is usually the juicier toms that split but the varieties that are more fleshy like Roma will probably be alright with a sudden deluge of water.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Helping Flowers Set

I'm sure if the flowers were bigger people would grow tomato plants for the beauty of their flowers as well as the fruit. It's amazing that this little flower is able to turn into a great big juicy tomato!

This season I've had some plants slow to set their fruit. It's not that I don't like the flowers, it's just that when they start to fade I can't wait to see the little pea-like toms forming.

It's best not to over-feed the plants when they are at the flowering stage otherwise it will take longer for the flowers to fade and the fruit to set. Also a misting of water and a gentle shake will help release the pollen inside the flowers and help fertilisation.

Tomato flowers are self-fertilising but help from a friendly bumble bee to move the pollen around inside the flowers seems absent this season. I don't think that I've seen more than two or three bees in the garden so far this year.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Tomatoes Are Easy To Grow (sometimes!)

When surfing the internet for information about growing tomatoes I am always amused when I read "tomatoes are easy to grow". It is true that they are easy to grow if you've had several years of experience and know what not to do ... especially with regard to stopping infection and disease recurring from previous seasons.

For those who are new to growing tomatoes, among the biggest mistakes made are over-watering and over-feeding. Too much water and their roots won't develop fully and too much food can also damage roots and prevent the uptake of the entire range of nutrients needed to develop a strong healthy plant.

The weather also plays a big part in success and failure, especially when growing outdoors.
Some seasons everything goes well and tomatoes just appear like magic ... you feel as if you could throw a seed out of the kitchen window and get tomatoes four months later!
Other seasons you try very hard and the results are disappointing.

I think it is better to say that "tomatoes can be easy to grow".

Micro Tom on the windowsill (pic right) ... one of the easiest varieties to grow but the fruit is quite small. Tumbling Tom and Garden Pearl are among the best cherry varieties but will require a large pot or container and a sunny position in the garden.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Glacier - First To Mature

Each season I try to get one or two plants to mature as early as I can.
This takes quite a lot of effort because the earlier you sow the more difficult they are to bring through the cold and low-light days of late Winter, early Spring.

If you're going to have early tomatoes you need to grow short season varieties and this year the ones I have chosen are Glacier and New Yorker.

Both were started inside but as the day time temperatures improved they were outside on the patio and brought in at night. They went into their final position (a large pot) in the middle of May and Glacier has just started to produce ripe tomatoes as you see in the photo above.

I have been very impressed with the way Glacier, a potato leaved variety, which has coped with low temperatures and has set fruit well. New Yorker, a larger fruited variety, has suffered more from the cold than Glacier and displays curled purple leaves but its fruit is still developing and I expect a good crop from it in a few weeks.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Feeding Tomatoes

The best way to feed tomatoes is "little and often".
Professional growers feed at every watering so that plants have access to the minerals and nutrients they need 24/7.

Although this is not really practical for most people who grow tomatoes, plants respond well if the "little and often" principle is followed.

Firstly, it is best not to feed tomato plants (with tomato food) until the first pea-like fruit appear. Whenever plants are put into new soil or compost they are also receiving a new supply of food. If you feed them at this stage, you are feeding them twice.

Of course every experienced gardener has his or her own way of doing things and if you get the results ... there's no reason to change.

However, my method is to feed half the recommended amount at every other watering when the first fruit are at pea size.

When the fruit start to ripen I feed them half the recommended amount 2 out of 3 waterings, then when the second truss is ripening (or several ripe fruit on a bush variety) I feed at full strength every other watering.

This is of course time consuming and if you follow the directions on the tomato food container I'm sure that will be good too!

As plants become more mature , at their fruiting stage, so they need more food because to produce and ripen lots of fruit takes lots of energy.

The more fruit .... the more feed they need but don't be too generous with food because too much can damage roots on younger plants, and too much of one mineral can prevent other nutrients from being absorbed.

Large fruit varieties show crinkly skins as they grow ...
a bit like a garment that you'll grow into!

Friday, 13 June 2008

Aeration - Air Circulation

One way to keep tomato plants healthy, especially when grown in a confined space such as a greenhouse or where they may be planted close together, is to increase aeration.

This particularly applies to the bottom part of the plant where old leaves and soil may infect the upper, healthy part of the plant and cause disease.

De-leafing old, lower leaves improves air circulation and making sure that watering doesn't splash soil up onto the lowest leaves, also helps to avoid infection. Watering into a pot sunken into the soil will help to avoid this.

It's also a good idea to pull off the leaf branches by hand rather than cut them because knives and scissors can spread disease from one plant to another.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Learning By Comparison

Tomato plants aren't all the same. It's not just the different shapes, colours and sizes of the fruit, it's also the way the plants behave, or in other words, their characteristics.

One of the most striking differences to me is in the way their leaves react to different conditions.
Some varieties curl their leaves if the sun is too strong for them, others do the same if it is too cold at night. Some just like to curl their leaves whatever the temperature because that is a characteristic of that variety!

The difficulty is, if you only grow one variety and the leaves start to curl, is it too hot in the day, too cold at night or are they just happy!

I find that I can learn a lot by comparing the behaviour of one variety with another. For example, the varieties with potato leaves seem to love the full sun whereas Black Cherry almost wilts under the same conditions. Obviously I've now put the Black Cherry plants in a position where they will get more shade.

Another point here is that Black Cherry grows more leaves than many other varieties and therefore needs more water in its system to support the extra leaf area ... no wonder why it doesn't like too much sun.

The down side of a leafy plant is that it will need more watering.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The Problem With Peat

This season I set out to compare peat based compost with peat free and I have been very impressed with the peat free compost I bought and how well it retains moisture in containers such as large pots.

On the other hand, the peat based compost seems to shrink more quickly and dry out faster in hot conditions than the peat free compost.

My tomato plants seem just as happy in the peat free compost and I believe that the possibility of Blossom End Rot is more likely from the peat based compost.

The problem is that mining peat for compost destroys wildlife, and some plants and animals who live in peat bogs, are now close to extinction.

I believe that peat free compost gives results that are as good as, and sometimes better than peat.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Hot Sun & Stress

Three days of strong sunshine have shown which of my plants are tolerant to high temperatures and which ones aren't.

Leaves are the main indicator of how plants feel and leaf curl, cupped or rolled, and wilting is what tomato plants do when they can't stand the heat on their leaves. Sometimes they even point their leaves away from the sunlight towards the shade!

You can tell if your leaves are being stressed by too much sun if the leaves at the front of the plant are more affected than the leaves at the back. Also the new growth at the top often turns downwards and looks shrivelled.

A way to help the situation is to mist leaves in morning and evening. This also helps with pollination which is more difficult if the air is very hot and dry.

Some varieties originate from places like Siberia so they would be quite happy with cooler temperatures and less sunshine. It is these varieties that are most vulnerable to excess heat and light ... just ask my Black Cherry plants!

Monday, 9 June 2008

Seaweed Extract & Roots

I guess by now most gardeners will have their tomato plants in their final position, be it a container of some kind, a greenhouse or the garden.

It obviously takes a while for roots to become established so I find that giving them a good feed with liquid seaweed extract helps plants settle in to their new home.

If plants start to wilt under the hot sun, give them a mist spray of water. It is common for plants to wilt in hot conditions until roots become established.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Tomato Support

I find that each season at some point I run out of support canes. Sterilizing last seasons canes is important to avoid disease but is a job that I don't look forward to so recently I've tried doing what the professionals do ... support the tall varieties with string.

It works very well under cover but outside the plants sway in the wind and I think that the movement could put too much stress on the lower part of the stem.

So for outdoor growing, I think that support canes, or other static support devices like cages, are best.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Tomatoes With Potato Leaves

Only recently have I started to grow tomato plants with potato shaped leaves.
The varieties that I grow include:
Glacier - a semi bush cherry.
Tamina - a tall medium variety.
Brandywine - a tall beefsteak heirloom of exceptional flavour.

I've been impressed with Glacier's ability to set in cool temperatures and its leaves stand up to the punishment of outdoor conditions well. This pic shows glacier about to be potted into a larger pot earlier in the season.

The potato leaves are really quite wide and will shade the fruit from too much hot, direct sunlight which can cause sunscald, greenback and blotchy ripening.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Flowers & Fruit Set

How different one variety is from another. New Yorkers and especially Glaciers are setting very well ... on my Glaciers some of the fruits are almost ripe and most of the flowers have set.

However, some of my varieties, especially Garden Pearl and Tumbling Tom seem reluctant to set. Lots of flowers dying away but no pea-like fruit yet ... maybe I shall see something soon.

Day and night time temperatures need to even out a bit for flowers to to set although there are not as many friendly flying insects around in my garden this season to help pollination.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Growing Tomatoes In Large Pots

Large pots have several advantages over grow bags.

They can be moved easily.
Great for bush varieties.
Plants can trail over the side without reaching the ground.
It is more difficult for slugs to hide.
It is easier to plant a support in a deep pot than a grow bag.

Some disadvantages are:

Pots can be blown over by the wind.
It is more expensive to buy pots than grow bags.

Adding sand to the compost will improve drainage and make the pot heavier and therefore less likely to be blown over on a windy day. You could also put a large stone or brick at the bottom.

Gravel, stones or even polystyrene packing at the bottom of large pots help drainage.

Add perlite, vermiculite or water retaining gel to the compost to help retain moisture and prevent compost from drying-out too quickly.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008


I'm constantly amazed by the different characteristics of tomato plants.
The trusses on my Glacier plants are so close that the tomatoes over-lap each other, that is, the truss above partly hangs over the truss below.

However, the Black Cherry plants have trusses that are such a distance between them that I thought at one point I was only going to get one truss!

Shirley also has a short distance between trusses which is helpful when height is an issue.

In the picture is Sungold ... lovely trusses of very sweet fruit. This year I'm trying Sun Cherry Premium which is supposed to be even better ... we'll wait and see!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Heirlooms & Open-Pollinated Varieties

To be considered an heirloom, a variety should have been around at least 50 years and be open-pollinated. Being open-pollinated means that it holds on to the parents characteristics generation after generation.

This is important if you want to save seed and you should also make sure that it has self-pollinated and not have accidently been crossed with a little help from a friendly bumble bee!

Monday, 2 June 2008

Blossom End Rot (BER)

Some of my medium size fruit varieties have just started to set and it is at this stage that I am most concerned about Blossom End Rot.
BER is the result of a lack of calcium as the fruit is forming and affects the underside of medium and large fruit varieties leaving a dark leathery patch. When the fruit has formed it is too late to add calcium.

The thing is, it's not that there isn't enough calcium in the soil (usually), it mostly happens because roots aren't working to full capacity owing to dry areas in the soil or cold temperatures.

I took this slightly out of focus picture of a plumb variety two seasons ago and every tomato on the plant was affected by BER ... rather disappointing considering the time and effort that went into getting the plant to this stage (the camera was more interested in the fence!).
As soon as the pea-like fruit appear I make sure that I give the soil or compost a good watering and a foliar feed with a food that contains calcium or trace elements at this stage is, in my opinion, a good idea.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Pollination and Fruit Set

One of the most exciting moments in tomato growing is when the flowers fade and the first little pea-like fruit appear. Each day they grow until they reach their mature size, start to change colour and the first ripe tomato from a plant is almost too good to eat!

The problem is, for most tomato varieties, temperatures and humidity have to be right in order for flowers to create pollen and set fruit. If flowers fail to set, blossom drop is the result and those pretty little flowers are aborted by the plant.

For outdoor growers, there is little you can do if the weather is too cold for pollen production.
The trick is really to sow at the right time, that is so that flowering will begin when outdoor temperatures (hopefully) are likely to be right for pollination.

From seed to flower takes about two months, so if temperatures are good for pollination from the beginning of June onwards, you would sow at the beginning of April (my favourite time to sow).

Other weather related causes of blossom drop include air that is too dry and air that is too damp.

It's easier to deal with dry air as you can spray/mist plants to help flowers set their fruit. Hopefully, by the time humid weather arrives, it is well into the season and you have lots of tomatoes ripening.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Micro Tom - small but easy to grow

As we reach the end of May, planting tomato plants in their final position, is what occupies the time of most tomato growers.

This is a very satisfying time knowing that all the potting on, lifting heavy bags of compost, moving trays of seedlings into the sun and bringing them in at night is over. You can now stand back and admire your healthy looking plants (hopefully) and imagine what they will look like laden with fruit ... in about two months time!

However, if you haven't sown any toms this season it's now too late for outdoor growing as from seed to fruit takes at least 4 months and that will take us to the beginning of October when the weather will be too cold for growing outdoors.

Nevertheless, you could try Micro Tom ... my first variety to mature this season. Although the toms are only small, they still look great in salads and can be grown on a sunny windowsill indoors.

They do need some support though, because their stems aren't strong enough to support their fruit.

On the subject of support and canes, be careful with canes around 2 or 3 feet high. It is at this height that they are most dangerous. You bend down to look more closely at your toms and if you don't see the end of a cane you could lose an eye!

Attach heavy duty tape (or something similar) to make the ends more visible.

I use canes in large pots and containers to support my bush varieties and have had the end of a cane in the face on more than one occasion ... I now make them easier to see!

Friday, 30 May 2008

Tomato Varieties This Season

I normally grow around forty plants each season which includes about fifteen different varieties.
However, earlier in the year I got a bit carried away! Here is a list of this season's varieties:


New Yorker
Oregon Spring
Tumbling Tom
Pepolino F1
Micro Tom
Minibel (pot)
Garden Pearl
Alaskan Fancy

Cordon (tall)

Suncherry Premium F1
Jelly Bean Hybrid
Brandywine (Sudduth's)
Caspian Pink
Ferline F1
Glacier (semi-determinate)
Cuore di Bue
Black Cherry
Gardener's Delight
Golden Sunrise

The problem was, just when I reached the point where I could not grow anymore, my neighbour turned up with more seedlings and I just could not refuse them!

Anyway, I am growing a number of these varieties for the first time and will enjoy watching the individual characteristics of each as they develop.

Since I started growing tomatoes, about twenty years ago, I am continually amazed by how different one variety can be from another.
Some like it hot (usually the Italian varieties), but others don't like to sit in the hot, direct sun all day (those that originate in cooler climes like Siberia!) but would rather have some shade.
Some set their fruit (pollinate) at lower temperatures than others such as Glacier and Siberian (perhaps their names give it away!), while others are very fussy and require long periods of good weather before they start to perform.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Removing Old Infected Leaves

Today, now that the sun is out again, I'm moving my large pots from the greenhouse and back onto the patio. The plants that were in the greenhouse are looking a bit sorry for themselves after a week of damp air and poor aeration.

Some of the lower, older leaves will need to be removed as they are infected.

To remove leaf branches (petioles), hold the branch about two inches from the main stem and pull upwards ... the branch should snap off cleanly. It is better to remove branches and side shoots by pulling them off without contact with the open wound because a knife or scissors can spread infection from one plant to another.

I'll dispose of old infected leaves and wash hands before touching any of my other plants because I may spread fungal infection etc. to my other plants.

Removing lower leaves (at the right time) helps keep plants healthy and helps air circulation which is also beneficial.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Growing Tomatoes In The Rain!

My outdoor tomatoes have been rained on every day for about a week now, so I have resorted to using plastic covers attached with pegs.

The problem with wet weather for long periods is blight ... a serious fungal disease that attacks plants and fruit, making them useless.

The varieties Ferline and Legend are said to have some blight resistance so I guess they are worth considering if you expect to have prolonged periods of wet weather during your growing season.

I do have Ferline growing so I shall be inspecting the leaves closely over the next few days to see if they display any of the brown patches on their leaves - the symptoms of blight.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Tomato Blight

The biggest challenge for the outdoor tomato grower (in the UK at least) is avoiding tomato blight.

Many gardeners had a problem with this last season and quite a few people who I've talked to lost many of their plants to this fungal disease.

Here are a few suggestions on ways to avoid blight.

  • Grow varieties that are resistant such as Ferline & Legend.

  • Spray with a systemic fungicide (Dithane 945 in the UK).
    Find some way to provide cover to keep rain off leaves.

  • Sow later in the season with early season varieties.

  • Avoid condensation in the greenhouse with greater ventilation.

  • De-leafing (to a degree) helps air circulation.

  • Keep plants as healthy as possible ... seaweed extract stimulates growth and helps plants combat disease.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Buying Seedlings

This weekend my wife and I visited two garden centers where, much to our surprise, tomato seedlings about 3 weeks old were on sale (they were struggling to develop their first true leaves). In each case, the seedlings looked starved of light, leggy and generally in poor condition.

Normally, the advantage of buying from a garden center is that much of the hard work has been done. That is, the seedlings have been under lights at a nursery for several weeks, and also at the correct temperature, before being displayed as strong, healthy plants with at least 3 pairs of true leaves. These specimens weren't!

If you want to buy tomato plants at the seedling stage, it would be better to wait until April when the plants for sale are healthier, or sow your own in March or April and choose a variety that suits your particular situation.

More advice on seedlings and growing tomatoes can be found at Nick's website or newsletter.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Varieties That Mature early

It is important to grow varieties that mature early if you are growing outdoors.
The following is a list of varieties that I have grown and can recommend.

Bush Varieties

Tumbler - cherry - early
Red Alert - cherry - early
Garden Pearl - cherry - early
Tumbling Tom - cherry - mid-season
Alaskan Fancy - medium - early
Siberian - medium - early
Balconi Red - cherry - early
Legend - large - mid-season
Oregon Spring - medium/large - early
Glacier - medium - early

Cordon Varieties

Gardener’s Delight - cherry - early
Money Maker - medium - mid-season
Alicante - medium - mid-season
Ailsa Craig - medium - mid-season
Sungold - yellow cherry - early
Sun Cherry Extra Sweet - early
Marmande - large beef - mid/late-season
Peron - medium - mid-season

Monday, 28 April 2008


Put them in the sun during the day and bring them in at night until all danger of frost has passed. Check out the estimated last frost date in your area.

Tomatoes like lots of light and a constant mild temperature.
They hate cold, windy, wet weather (a bit like an English summer ... just joking!), too much watering and poor light levels. As the plants grow transplant them into bigger pots.

Some gardeners use grow lights to supplement the daylight hours or extend them. This is a good idea if you want to sow early and have tomatoes early, but it can be a bit expensive in energy bills.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Sowing Seeds

Sow a few seeds in a small pot (3.5 inch) just below surface 1/8 inch deep. Place pot in a saucer of water for a minute or two and cover with cling film. Use seed compost because it holds more moisture and is best for the fine roots of seedlings.

Keep in a warm place (18-21C) and as soon as the seedlings appear, put them in a light position (not too warm, around 16-18C) to stop them from becoming too leggy.

After their first true leaves are growing, transplant the seedlings into individual small pots so that the seed leaves are just above the soil level.

Use potting compost because it contains the mixture and nutrients suitable for young plants. It’s also a good idea to add a little of the seed compost to the transplant mixture as this will help the roots become established.