Published 24 June 2013
I am not saying my method is the only method nor am I trying to say how one should grow tomatoes. This is just exactly as I do it, with problems, warts and all. It may not be easy, possible or even desirable to follow what I do, but I hope you may find these words useful and instructive and adapt them to your circumstances and needs. If it helps, I will be happy.
What I do is mostly shaped by the end product I am looking for. Here is a list of some of the factors most important to me:
I have a general category for any ripe tomato that is ready, with them I make a Tomato and garlic drink, roast the tomatoes and garlic (add herbs if you want) then blend it as you would a smoothie and drink it while is only just warm. It is a version of homemade tomato juice but much more flavorsome. You could add spirits like Vodka, as I write this it’s a lovely June evening and you could sit outside to enjoy the evening sun.
As you can see, I have different needs and although any tomatoes would fit every category, I want variety and the most suitable tomato for the job.
The Start - Seed
Having started some years ago, I am now in a position to be able to save my own seed. It is very easy with Tomatoes and I highly recommend it. I get much better germination and stronger plants from my own seed than from bought seed and tomatoes are one of the easiest vegetables or fruit to save seed from.
If mum liked it here the kids will too, is my philosophy and I only save seed form the best plants.
All my original seed came from companies (like Simpson’s, Plants of Distinction, Tamar, Plantworld gardens) which tend to have specialist or heritage Tomatoes varieties and I tried to buy organic. Unfortunately with some of the best tomatoes you cannot buy organic seed so only from the second year of my own growing can they be considered truly organic.
I sow in my own seed trays. I use old wooden boxes cut down to a couple of inches, with my own potting compost (see web site) and I sow twice the number of seeds that I eventually want plants of. I get better germination than this but I want to be able to choose which plants I grow from, rather than having to take all those that have germinated. After all, if you save the seed it’s free and it is only a little extra work to prepare more trays. The timing depends a little on the weather but the end of February or the start of March is about right for sowing. The seed trays are put in a propagator and the plants are pricked out into 9cm terracotta pots when the third leaf appears. They are kept in the heat for this period. I try to keep the temperature around 65°, but it’s tricky unless you have professional equipment (which I don’t). To do this I have a long, 7 meter heated mini polytunnel inside my polytunnel which I keep warm with electric mats (soil warming types). The plants remain here until they are replanted in their final pots at the end of May, still in the main polytunnel.
I am lucky in having a large polytunel and I made my mini polytunel with hoops on a bench covered with plastic film. I bought a length of polytunel film and made it into a cover. During the winter, the polytunel gets very low in temperature and is only useful for keeping the wind out. Only when the sun shines does the temperature go up much.
The plants get potted on each time a root appears out of the bottom of its current pot into another, larger pot. I go up 2cm at a time, so a 9cm pot increases to a 11cm, followed by a 13cm pot etc. After that I sometimes jump up to 17cm if the plant looks strong. Feeding starts intermittently then, (see web site for Liquid feeds) until the end of May when they are planted out into 30 cm (12 inches) terracotta pots in the main polytunnel. I used to just fill these 30cm pots half full with compost, but since Monty’s last visit he got me thinking about using more compost for a better root run, so this year I have used three quarter filled pots. From here on in they get my standard feed every day.
The reason I only fill the pots half full with compost is I want to ‘stress’ the plant. Plants that are stressed often produce their best fruit in a last ditch effort of life. This stressing is not easy and requires a little practice as it can be a fine balance between success and failure and it is very easy to end up with small yellow tomato plants. The feed has to be constant and of a good quality so that the plant actually flourishes rather than dies. Stressing is a bit of a knack but CAN produce great fruit.
Stressing means causing the plant to have to struggle more than normal, for example if you do not water it enough you would wilt the leaves and eventually end up with the leaves going yellow. This has stressed the plant but not particularly in a good way.
Some years ago I used to be a wine merchant and so often when visiting vineyards it was impressed on me that vines had to be slightly stressed to produce their best fruit. Many vines are planted on very poor soil and some of the best vineyards in the world have soil only just able to keep the vine alive. If the soil is rich and deep plants tend to produce great plants with lovely green leaves but the fruit is not so good. Often, only when a plant has to struggle does it produce its best fruit.
As the plants grow I pinch out the side shoots when I see them and start removing the bottom leaves quite early on. The plant produces three types of branch from the stem. A leaf type branch, a branch which has a flower on it and a side shoot in-between the leaf branch and the stem. It is these side shoots that I remove to produce a tall cordon type plant rather than a bush type plant.
I remove the bottom leaves only to get them out of the way so as not to splash water on them when watering. Tomato blight needs wet leaves to enter the plant and so by not wetting any of the leaves you have a very good chance of not getting blight later on. You needn’t do this if you are really careful with watering.
The plants are trained up a string, very loosely tied to the base of the plant once the stem is big enough and held up by a wire stretched out across the roof.
After final repotting and once the compost has settled down I cover it with some fine OLD wood chips. It is important that they have been left outside for a year at least or better still, two. If they are partially rotted they do not rob the nitrogen from my feed and also will hold water themselves. New sawdust or wood chips are not so good. I have wood chip paths round my patch and after four or five years I put them through a sieve and use the middle sieving for covering polytunnel pots.
That’s about it for the preparation. Now it is just keeping up the watering and feeding.
A note on Feeding: Apart from my home made potting compost I only use the three feeds mentioned on the web site under Liquid Feeds. I add the liquid feed to the watering can just before I water at a ratio of 50:1 for all three liquids. Once I start watering I add ONE of these liquid feeds every day. To start with I use the nettle juice daily as it is ready earlier in the year than comfrey. It is more nitrogenous so helps growth. However occasionally I may use some comfrey, which helps both roots and growth, just as a change. This carries on until the end of June. July will be mostly comfrey but towards the end I will progress to Wood Ash. If you start with wood ash too soon you run the risk of yellowing the plants too early. The wood Ash is fantastic for taste but will eventually kill the plant because it is so alkaline. By the end of August I am not too worried about this as not a lot ripens in September unless we have an Indian summer and even then the taste is never the same, they are not as sweet or luscious. In all the plants are fed like this every day for 3 months.
Watering is another skilled job (knack) and it’s a real art not to over or under water. I do all my watering by hand and the amount totally depends on the weather. Hot days get more water than overcast. On a hot day in June or July a 2 gallon watering can is sufficient for 8 plants watered around mid day. I fill the cans up in the morning leaving them in the polytunel so the water gets hot by midday and then add the feed (see wed site for Liquid Feeds). I have to have enough watering cans to be able to water everything without refilling. If the weather is exceptional I will go round again in the late afternoon (as the water will be hot again by then) with plain hot water at perhaps a 2 gallon watering can will do 12 to 16 plants. On overcast days if it’s raining I may just give them a splash at midday. If my terracotta pots start turning green (even the tiniest amount) then I’m over watering, if the top of the compost is dry then I’m under watering.
I like to pick the tomatoes in the afternoon as the sugar levels will be higher than in the morning and I wait until they are completely ripe to pick them i.e. soft and very colored.
I find many verities (like Cumato) will hold on the plant for a long time, several weeks, when ripe but others start getting shriveled skins once ripe, so they must be eaten.
One problem I used to encounter was that the base of the tomato (stalk end) would remain a little green and not turn colored. This was due to lack of nutrition but now that I feed the plant more it’s doesn’t happen so often. I used to feed the plants less than I do now and had these problems. One year I took some tomatoes with this problem to RHS Whisley and asked their opinion. They said it was lack of nutrition so from then on I have increased the nutrition over the growing period until I ripen the plants as I would like them. This is basically how I have ended up with the amounts of feed I now use.
Once I start feeding with Wood Ash liquid, the plants will slowly start to turn yellow due to lime induced chlorosis. The wood ash liquid is so alkaline it will start to affect the plant after a few weeks. By the end of 6 weeks they will look pretty sick and yellowing but will still be producing great fruit.
I process the tomatoes all summer (assuming we have one) and do not put any of the plants on the compost heap. This is totally irrational, but I feel they carry too many problems/ disease with them, which may not be cured with the heat of the compost heap, so I throw the plants away.
This is the method by which I grow my tomatoes. It is a process that has been evolving and continues to evolve as I observe the fruits of my labor and what works well and see what could work better. I also believe there are other ways to successfully grow tomatoes apart from mine but this works for me. I hope these insights can be of use to you, whether you wish to grow your own fruit in this manner or just to gain a further insight into this fascinating activity.