Speedily grown under glass, placed in cold storage and ripened with gases… it’s hardly surprising that commercially grown tomatoes often taste bland. They’re a world away from home-grown tomatoes, which are juicy and have tangy flavours that develop gently over summer, as they ripen.
Follow the advice in this guide to grow your own delicious tomatoes.
Growing tomatoes from seed
There are many different types of tomato, including cherry, plum and beefsteak, each with its own distinctive shaped fruit, flavour and culinary use. They grow in one of two ways – either as a bush, or trained as a cordon, which is a tall single stem.
Tomatoes are available as young plants, but if you’d like to try some of the more unusual varieties it’s worth growing them from seed.
Start sowing in late January. Sow seeds in 7.5cm pots of moist compost, top with a thin layer of vermiculite, then water and cover with cling film. Stand on a warm, bright windowsill or in a propagator.
When your seeds have germinated, remove the cling film (or take them out of the propagator) and keep the compost damp. Transplant seedlings when they reach about 2-3cm tall into 5cm pots filled with moist multi-purpose compost. Return them to the windowsill. Keep potting on as necessary. Support stems by tying them to a pea stick with soft string.
Move your tomatoes outside after the last frost in May. Choose a sunny, sheltered spot, where you can plant them into a border (into soil that has had plenty of well-rotted garden compost added), or into 30cm pots, or put two or three plants in a growing bag. If growing tomatoes in a greenhouse, try growing alongside basil, which enjoys the same conditions.
Tending the crop
Tall-growing cordon tomatoes will require pinching out (removing side shoots) and staking (tying plants to canes with soft string). When the first tiny fruits begin to appear, strip away the leaves underneath to allow light and air to reach them better. When there are four trusses (clusters) of flowers, pinch out the plant’s growing tip.
Once flowers appear, feed your plants weekly with liquid tomato food, such as Tomorite. Keep tomatoes well watered because irregular watering causes fruit to split or develop hard black patches, known as blossom-end rot. This is caused by a lack of calcium, which is found in water.
With bush tomatoes, which have a sprawling habit, you can pretty much leave them to get on with it. If the fruits are hidden under the leaves, thin out the foliage a little to let the sun through to ripen them. Support heavy trusses on top of upturned flowerpots to prevent their stems snapping.
Leave tomatoes on the plants so they can ripen naturally, which greatly improves the flavour. Towards the end of the season, prune off the older leaves to let in more light and prevent grey mould fungus taking hold. If the weather turns cold, pick the trusses to ripen indoors.
Tomatoes are best eaten straight from the vine, when they’re still warm from the sun. They don’t freeze well, but you can store them in the fridge for up to a week.
Preparation and uses
Enjoy tomatoes in salads and sandwiches. Most types are also suitable for cooking, but plum varieties are especially so. If you’re lucky enough to have a glut of tomatoes, try experimenting with your own pasta sauces.
Whitefly can be a problem in greenhouses, and tomato blight can affect plants grown outside, especially in warm, wet summers. Prevent blight by spraying plants with a suitable fungicide. Blossom end rot is caused by a lack of calcium, and splitting fruits can be a result of erratic watering.
Growing tomatoes in a greenhouse
Growing tomatoes in a greenhouse is very similar to growing them outside, except you get a longer growing season. You’ll need to shade your plants from excessive heat, which could cause tough skins, blotchy ripening and, if you forget to water regularly, blossom-end rot. So fit some blinds, use shade paint, or hang woven shading fabric.
Tomato varieties to try
‘Astro Ibrido’ – produces vast quantities of small to medium plum tomatoes with outstanding flavour
‘Gardeners’ Delight’ – a bush or cordon cherry tomato, with heavy crops of richly flavoured fruits
‘Garden Pearl’ – this compact cherry type is ideal for growing in a large pot
- ‘Ildi’ – deliciously sweet, yellow, pear-shaped cherry tomatoes in large trusses of up to 80 fruits
‘Juliet’ – a cordon cherry plum, with fewer seeds than most. It cooks well
‘Reduna’ – this cordon type has a delicious, classic flavour and is easy to slice
‘Sparta’ – a cordon variety with lots of well-shaped and well-flavoured fruits