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.