Summer smells of hot grass, ripe tomatoes and the pungency of tomato leaves as you brush against them to
There's still time to have your own tomato crop this year. Tomatoes will start to yield ripe fruit about 10 - 20 weeks after planting depending on climate and variety. Cherry tomatoes are much earlier and crop later into the
Young tomatoes are more disease resistant than older plants, so even if you already have a flourishing crop, plant new tomatoes every two or three months or take cuttings from the last lot and plant them as far away as practicable from
Tomatoes grow like weeds. In fact tomatoes were – and in some places still are – originally a South American weed. The chief necessity is to feed them incredibly well. The best tomato plants I've known have been self seeded, growing feral in a pile of hen manure. It is almost impossible to overfeed a tomato. Don't starve the poor things or they'll be stingy producers.
The next rule is to pick tomatoes as soon a they are ripe, or even starting to colour in fruit fly prone areas and pick up all fallen ones. The most common problems are below. But basically plant, feed, pick and eat. And be prepared to become a home-grown tomato addict.
Tomato Trouble Shooting
Tomatoes need ample potash and phosphorus as well as nitrogen. They thrive on hen manure and will tolerate higher doses of fresh hen manure than most other plants, though this can be at the expense of masses of leaves and few fruit. Avoid too much nitrogen when the plant is young or you may get a massive bush with few tomatoes. Feed your tomatoes with higher nitrogen fertilisers when the plant begins to flower as its nitrogen need rises then. If you have fed your tomatoes with compost or a good quality mulch the nutrients will be readily available by the time the tomato begins to flower and no other feeding should be necessary, as long as you keep renewing the mulch. Well-fed tomatoes crop for a much longer period than those forced with too much nitrogen. Nitrogen-starved tomatoes have pale green leaves tinged with purple. Phosphorus deficiency is indicated by purple-tinged leaves. Scatter on rock phosphate, mulch with compost or feed with hen manure or another phosphorus and potash rich fertiliser.
Your soil may be too acid. Add lime, dolomite or wood ash.
Potash or phosphorus deficiency.
This is due to irregular watering or lack of calcium. Add dolomite to the garden and bring in materials for mulch and compost from areas that aren't calcium deficient.
Tomatoes are subject to various wilts and blotches. Some are transferred in seed. Others survive in the soil. With fusarium wilt the whole plant wilts, rotted at the base of the stem and stems may be cracked. In mild cases the plant may just grow slowly or be pale and stunted. Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungus. Try covering the soil before you plant out tomatoes with clear plastic sheeting for three weeks to kill off spores in the soil. Practice crop rotation and use resistant cultivars. If you have had problems with tomatoes before, cover the soil with clear plastic for three weeks before you plant the next crop. Try bio-fumigation to clean the soil of pests and diseases – plant mustard greens (ordinary mustard greens will have some effect but if you can get hold of bio-mustard it has much higher quantities of the active chemicals) as a green manure crop in the winter, turn it in and allow to rot before planting tomatoes (and their relatives eggplant and potatoes). Broad beans and garlic also have some bio fumigation effect.
Pick fruit regularly. Don't let fallen fruit lie on the ground. As a last resort measure, pick green tomatoes and let them ripen indoors or cover the plants with a fruit fly netting.
Water under the leaves as well as on top – especially bad in dry weather or in glasshouses.
Uneven watering – too dry then very wet. Mulch, mulch and mulch.
These are less of a problem for tomatoes than other vegetables, though they will eat your nice ripe tomatoes. Put a sharp collar made from the top of a can around the stem, or put pellets inside an old ice cream container with a little door cut out for the snails et al to enter. This way the pellets won't kill worms and other soil life - or kids,
Pick fruit often; use fruit fly netting not bird netting which birds, bats and snakes can get tangled in.
Young plants appear suddenly cut off at the base. Try collars of old tin cans, old plastic soft drink bottles or stiff cardboard or two toothpicks as stakes on either side of seedlings. Try a green manure crop of mustard before planting. A well mulched soil will deter cutworms.
Dip seedlings in strong chamomile tea before planting, then pour the rest around each one on planting. Make sure all organic matter in the soil is decomposed and no mulch is actually touching the seedlings.
This is caused by tomato fruit worm. Don't worry about them – the damage usually isn't severe enough to worry about unless you are growing them commercially. As a last resort use DIPEL – a form of bacterial warfare on
This can occur when you have hot days and cold nights. Don't worry about it. It's not a virus.
Top Tomato Tips
Tomatoes form roots up their stems and stalk if they are mulched. The more roots, the better they grow - so mulch right up to the stem if you can. I don't bother to stake my tomatoes initially – the branches that sprawl on the ground take root then I stake them up and have
Don't bother pruning
Tomatoes ripen in response to heat, not sunlight. Pruning is just one more task that gardeners have burdened themselves with. If you are a pruning fanatic prune the tomatoes to two stems, or laterals. The lateral below the first flower truss is usually the most vigorous -
Stake vampires, not tomatoes (sometimes)
Staked tomatoes look neat. Unstaked ones fall over and the branches sprawl all over the place but sprawling tomato branches form roots on the bottom so the tomato vine is much more vigorous - if you don't mind wading through a couple of acres of plant while you look for ripe tomatoes. NB. This only applies if you have a large garden with room for sprawling tomatoes. If they have a small bed, stake them and even prune them, so they grow tall. Use old stockings or bits of cloth, rather than string which can cut into the soft branches. Don't tie too tightly as you can cut off circulation as the branches grow bigger. Just loop the stocking et al round the branch very loosely, then loop it again around the stake. This gives leeway in windy weather so branches are less likely to snap if pulled away from the stake.
Let a branch sprawl on the ground. When it roots cut it out and plant it somewhere else for a follow-on tomato crop. You can also cut a branch (the lower the better) and plant it about two thirds deep. Keep it moist and in semi-shade till it starts to grow. This is a good way to get a follow-on crop. It's also a good way to avoid ever buying tomato plants or seeds – just borrow a bit of
Tomatoes do well in pots - it's a good way to get early tomatoes in spring or keep tomatoes fruiting through winter. The bigger the pot the better. You can even grow them on the window-sill if you have a big window enclosure – or you prune your tomato bush every couple of days. Potted tomatoes can be kept out of frost reach and will crop through winter. Feed often – there won't be enough nutrients in the pot to give you a decent crop.
This week I'm:
. picking tomatoes, eating tomatoes, serving tomatoes 41 ways and almost ready to purée batches and freeze them, rather than the hot hassle of bottling – a small carton of frozen tomato puree is magic in mid-winter and the basis for a superb gazpacho in early summer before the next crop is ready;
. letting the garden wilt and hoping for thunder storms;
. watching the first Souvenir de la Malmaison rose bloom. The two new climbers for outside my study were a Christmas present – they are one of the most glorious roses ever – fragrant, delicate and generous – and the climber seems even more floriferous than the standard;
. getting ready to repel the cucumber vines if they try to
. also eating cucumbers;
. forgetting to plant more beans and lettuce, then remembering and thinking it's too hot; and watching my grandson's face as he picks another ripe
How to peel a tomato
Cut just through the skin, no deeper, from top to bottom and back again, so you've divided the tomato into quarters. Now pour boiling – or even very hot – water over the tomato for a few seconds. The edges of the cuts will peel back and you can slide the rest of the skin off. Peeled tomatoes are much nicer sliced on sandwiches and infinitely better in soup and stews unless they are going to be puréed – otherwise you end up with wrinkly bits at the bottom.
Classic Tomato Salad
Slice very red ripe tomatoes. Douse with good olive oil. Serve at once. A few torn basil leaves or coriander leaves. A little chopped garlic and/or black pepper and/or thinly sliced red onions soaked in water or milk overnight to remove their acridness and leave their crunch and sweetness and/or black olives may be added. Ripe tomatoes are both sweet and acid and shouldn't need vinegar but, if they aren't home grown, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar to
Simple pasta sauce
Sauté two onions and twelve cloves of garlic in olive oil till soft. Add 12 peeled chopped tomatoes. Cook till soft. Add a lot of chopped basil, chives, parsley – or less marjoram or oregano instead of the basil. This isn't as garlicky as it seems, as the garlic is cooked in oil first and loses most of its pungency. Scatter cheese on top – parmesan or pecorino or even mozarella – grind on black pepper at the last minute (it goes bitter if you add it too soon).
Quick Fried Tomatoes in Cream
Pour a cup of cream into a pan with four cloves of chopped garlic. Simmer for 10 minutes. Cut four very ripe peeled tomatoes in half and lay them in the cream. Cook gently till they are heated through, about 30 seconds to a minute. Take off the heat before they turn soggy and top with finely chopped parsley, basil or fresh coriander.
6 kilos tomatoes
1 litre white vinegar
1 kilo chopped onions and 10 cloves chopped garlic,
sautéed till soft in a little oil
150 grams sugar
teaspoon ground ginger
pepper and salt to taste
Boil for two hours, strain through a sieve and whizz with a stick blender till smooth. Bottle. A little melted clarified butter or olive oil on top before sealing will help it to keep longer and keep the colour brighter.
The secret here is to butter evenly, thickly and everywhere so the juice doesn't soften the bread – or use cheese to protect the bread instead. The classic tomato sandwich is then kept in a Globite school case in the sun for at least three hours, then eaten hot and slightly fermented. Not recommended, except for nostalgia.